Memory Loss – What Is Normal And What Is Not

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With age, you may worry that your memory is not as sharp as it once was. This may be true. But if memory loss doesn’t interfere with your ability to function independently, it can be part of the normal aging experience. On the other hand, even if it doesn’t disturb your daily life, it can also be a symptom of “mild cognitive impairment”, an early, gradually developing stage of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.

So is your memory loss normal? Here are a few key differences between someone aging normally and someone showing early signs of Alzheimer’s (or other forms of dementia), compiled from both the Alzheimer’s Association and National Institute on Aging:

Normal: occasionally forgetting; e.g. forgetting to pay a bill
Not: forgetting that interferes with performing everyday life tasks; e.g. failing to manage a monthly budget at all

Normal: forgetting what day it is, but remembering it later
Not: continuously losing track of what day it is, or becoming confused about the season or year in some cases

Normal: occasionally not being able to find the right word in a conversation
Not: often completely losing your train of thought in a conversation, with no ability to recover it

Normal: occasionally losing things; e.g. losing your wallet, but remembering that the last time you had it was ___ and taking steps to find it.
Not: routinely losing things with inability to find them; e.g. losing your wallet and blaming someone else, while your relative finds it in your medicine cabinet or some other strange place.

Normal: occasionally making a bad decision, e.g. buying something you didn’t need on impulse
Not: consistently exercising poor judgment; e.g. bankrupting your account writing checks to mail spammers in hopes of unrealistic prizes

If you or your family members are concerned that you’re experiencing memory loss, it may be a good idea to consult a physician. You may be referred to a neurologist or other specialist for a screening. A screening for memory loss and/or dementia is harmless and typically consists of a battery of tests of various aspects of cognitive functioning, such as verbal reasoning or visual/spatial memory. If you are found to be at risk, you may need other tests to determine whether your memory loss is related to a dementia syndrome such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Even if your memory is impaired, it may not be the beginning of a steady decline. Not all memory loss is related to progressive neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Some forms of memory loss are reversible and can be triggered by a wide range of other factors, from menopause to thyroid disease to B12 deficiency to medication, stress, or head injury. Some memory loss, on the other hand, is permanent but preventable, such as memory loss due to chronic alcoholism.

Memory loss related to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia may be one of the first signs of disease, but is eventually accompanied by a host of other symptoms, which together are known as dementia.

The most common type of memory loss in early Alzheimer’s is a reduced ability to learn and retain new information.

If, along with memory loss, you also experience changes in other aspects of your life, such as social withdrawal, inability to perform complex tasks you once could, abrupt changes in mood or behavior, bouts of confusion, or changes in visual perception, your memory loss may be part of a bigger picture.

If this is the case, early detection and treatment is key to improving your outcome and to your having a voice in the course of your treatment.

Click Here For Article References:

10 Early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Association.

New Diagnostic Criteria and Guidelines for Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s Association.

Guy M. McKhann et al. “The diagnosis of dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease: Recommendations from the National Institute on Aging – Alzheimer’s Association workgroups on diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease.” Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association 2011;7(3):263 – 269.

Marilyn S. Albert et al. “The diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s disease: Recommendations from the National Institute on Aging – Alzheimer’s Association workgroups on diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease.” Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association 2011;7(3):270 – 279.

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Leslie Jellen is a research scientist and science writer who earned a PhD in Neuroscience as an NIH Ruth R Kirschstein Fellow at Penn State University. She earned her BS in Psychology, thus while she is a trained biologist, she approaches problems from a behavioral perspective. Her research centers on the genetics of brain iron regulation and how that relates to Restless Legs Syndrome. When not actively researching, she enjoys writing about all topics related to the brain.