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Memory lapses: What's normal and when to see a doctor

Posted June 03, 2021 by Charles A. Zonfa, MD, FACOG | Chief Medical Office

It may be worrisome the first time you can’t remember where you parked your car, have trouble recalling the person’s name you met at a party the night before or repeatedly misplace your smartphone. You may even ask yourself, “Uh oh, is this the beginning stages of dementia?”

If any of these situations seem all-too familiar, you’re not alone. About 40 percent of Americans aged 65 and older deal with the mildest form of age-related memory impairment. However, you can rest easy knowing that only about 1 percent of that population ends up progressing to dementia, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Unfortunately, with age comes the increasing likelihood of developing memory loss. Hormones and proteins that repair your brain cells and grow new ones decline with age. Also, a decreased blood flow to the brain hinders your memory and cognitive skills.

In addition, certain medications, emotional disorders, alcoholism, hypothyroidism and brain diseases can all contribute.

The good news is many of these conditions can be reversible. Eating a healthy diet, rich in antioxidants, help protect brain cells and exercising helps your overall health. Plus, you can help prevent memory lapses by working your brain muscles to keep them in peak shape. As the saying goes, you don’t use it, you lose it.

More serious conditions, however, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, cannot be reversed. Dementia is not a normal part of aging, but instead is a progressive loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other cognitive thinking abilities that interfere with daily activities. These conditions accelerate cellular dysfunction and death.

The question is how do you know if your memory loss is strictly age related or something more serious?

Though it’s not a black-and-white answer, doctors have identified key differences between normal memory lapses and serious memory problems that require treatment.

SummaCare breaks down memory decline that is a normal part of aging and when it’s time to talk to your doctor. It’s important to know the difference because early detection of memory issues is key for better outcomes.

Memory lapses that are a normal part of aging

There are multiple memory processes, including learning new information, recalling information and recognizing familiar information. As we age, each of these processes can get disrupted, which can lead to forgetfulness.

Simple forgetfulness. Forgetting where you left your keys or phone is normal, or if you walked upstairs and forgot why once you got there, you still have nothing to worry about. Absent-mindedness most likely is to blame. You’re not paying close enough attention when you put your phone or keys down because you’re thinking about something else.

Forgetting facts or events over time. This also is typical with aging. It’s the brains way of clearing unused memories to make way for new ones. Similarly, it’s typical to recall part of a memory, but incorrectly recall the details, such as the time or place. As you grow older, your memories do, too, and time is memory’s worst enemy.

Delay in recalling someone’s name or words in conversation. It’s also normal if you forget someone’s name momentarily, struggle with word retrieval or call your child by the wrong name. This is called brain blocking, where a memory is properly stored, but something keeps you from finding it. In most instances, the blocked memory is similar to another one and you retrieve the wrong one.

What’s more, simply losing sleep, having anxiety or taking certain medications can contribute to temporary memory loss. So unless memory loss is extreme and persistent, none of these lapses are indicators of dementia.

When to see a doctor about memory lapses

The time to worry about memory loss is when it begins to impair your ability to perform daily tasks and your accustomed role in life.

For example, forgetting where you parked your car at the grocery store is a sign of forgetfulness or normal aging, but forgetting how to drive your car or what the keys are used for is not considered a normal memory problem.

If you notice the following warning signs on yourself or a loved one, contact your doctor right away. Early detection is key to getting treatment before dementia hits an advanced stage.

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily activities
  • Trouble completing familiar tasks, such as following a recipe, paying bills or taking medications
  • Asking the same questions repeatedly
  • Confusion or disorientation with date, time or place
  • Misplacing items and trouble retracing steps
  • New problems with words or speaking
  • Difficulty planning or solving problems, and a decline in rational thinking
  • Changes in mood or personality for no apparent reason
  • A good rule of thumb to follow is if you’re worried about your memory loss, it’s probably not that serious. However, if your family and friends are more worried about your memory loss than you are, then it probably is more serious.