Is it Memory Loss or Something More?

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Whether it’s forgetting someone’s name or where we put our keys, everyone experiences memory loss at one point or another. But what is considered “normal” memory loss and when should we be concerned?

Guide to Memory Loss

Consider this your guide to navigating memory loss.

Define “Normal”

The normal changes one might notice with age are referred to as age-associated memory deficit or AAMD, and tend to occur in your 60’s. Short-term memory lapses, like forgetting where you put your keys or the name of an acquaintance may become noticeable, even frequent. Whereas, long-term memories, such as recalling a family vacation you took 10 years ago, tend to be preserved. The ability to engage in purposeful, independent behavior like making a plan for a project, solving a problem, or reasoning about unfamiliar things, may start to decline with age, particularly after age 70.

Rest assured though, we do not lose intelligence as we get older. Skills and procedures that are well practiced, such as vocabulary and general knowledge tend to be preserved over time, although verbal fluency may decline a bit in later years. Perception of visual cues and recognition of familiar faces and objects are also typically maintained.

It is still true that old dogs can learn new tricks! Languages, for example, can be learned in later years, but it may take longer to process that information. Attention span also may decrease especially in a busy environment, whereas a younger brain may be able to multitask more easily and still retain information. “Old” brains tend to work harder — evidence shows us that more brain area is recruited to complete the same task in older versus younger subjects.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

If you notice that your memory loss seems to be a bit more severe than what we described as “normal” above, then you may be experiencing Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). At this stage, memory loss is prevalent but still does not impair an individual’s daily living. MCI has two forms: amnestic MCI or non-amnestic MCI. Amnestic MCI pertains only to memory whereas non-amnestic includes other areas of brain function including executive function and language or relationships to objects. MCI may occur prior to the onset of dementia, but it doesn’t always mean that the individual will develop the disease. However, those with amnestic MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s if they do end up being diagnosed with dementia later in life. MCI is most likely to progress into dementia within the first few years of diagnosis.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

While occasional memory loss of recent events or needing more time to remember names can be considered part of normal aging, there remains an understandable concern that memory loss is signaling the onset of dementia. Below is a list of several “red flags” that should prompt a conversation with your physician.

Behaviors in Older Adults That Should Cause Concern:

  • Trouble with things you do very regularly, like driving to a particular place
  • Increased forgetfulness of daily occurrences, such as regular meetings
  • Trouble learning new things
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Trouble handling money
  • Repeating stories or phrases in the same conversation
  • Changes in grooming, hygiene; appearing disheveled

While you may not be able to prevent some of the more severe forms of memory loss like dementia, you can still take action now to help preserve your memory. Some ways to do this include exercising your brain with crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and other brain teasers. You should also engage in social and leisure activities on a regular basis as well as other activities that require the use of critical thinking skills like learning a new language or taking a college course. Staying healthy and in control of your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar can also help because it allows you to maintain blood flow to your brain, helping to aid in clear thinking and memory retention.

If you noticed that you seem more forgetful than usual and aren’t sure why, schedule an appointment with your doctor to make sure it’s not something more serious.

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