You need three ingredients for a recipe, so you dash to the grocery store—but once you’re there, you can’t remember one of the items you came for.
You go to a wedding reception, and even though you’ve met the bride’s mother before, you can’t remember her name.
You say aloud, “Where are my glasses, I’ve looked everywhere!” and your spouse points out that you’ve rested them on top of your head.
Memory lapses like these can worry us, especially as we grow older. But for the most part, these little slips are the result of perfectly normal changes of aging. Neurologists tell us that some thinking and memory skills drop off even by middle age, so we probably won’t beat a college student at, say, a game where we have to remember long strings of numbers. On the other hand, some of the qualities that are collectively known as “wisdom” continue to develop and flourish as we enter our seventh, eighth, even ninth and tenth decades.
It is true that certain conditions that become more common with age affect our memory and thinking. These include Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia and dementia resulting from a stroke or series of strokes. It’s important that these conditions be diagnosed early to allow for the best possible treatment, and so patients and their families can plan for the changes to follow.
Worrying about our memory can even, itself, affect our memory! Stress is a notorious memory inhibitor. And if we have a parent or other family member who has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of memory loss, this might make us even more sensitized to any lapses in our own memory.
To help consumers sort out the difference between ordinary mild forgetfulness and signs that should be reported to the doctor, the National Institutes of Health recently shared some information:
What is mild forgetfulness?
Some of us do get more forgetful as we age. It may take longer to learn new things, call up certain words, or find our glasses. These are often signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.
If you’re worried about being forgetful, see your doctor and describe what’s bothering you. Be sure to make a follow-up appointment to check your memory in the next six months or year. If you’re afraid you’ll forget, ask a family member, friend, or the doctor’s office to remind you.
What can I do about mild forgetfulness?
You can do many things to help keep your memory sharp and stay alert. Here are some helpful ideas:
- Learn a new skill.
- Volunteer in your community, at a school, or at your place of worship.
- Spend time with friends and family.
- Use memory tools—to-do lists, reminder notes, big calendars.
- Put your wallet or purse, keys and glasses in the same place each day.
- Get lots of rest.
- Exercise and eat well.
- Don’t drink a lot of alcohol.
- Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time.
What is a serious memory problem?
Serious memory problems make everyday things hard to do. You may find it hard to drive, shop, or even talk with a friend. Signs of serious memory problems may include:
- asking the same questions over and over again
- getting lost in places you know well
- not being able to follow directions
- becoming increasingly confused about time, people, and places
- not taking care of yourself—eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe
What can I do if I’m worried about my memory?
See your doctor. If your doctor thinks your memory problems are serious, you may need a complete health checkup. The doctor will review your medicines and may test your blood and urine, as well as checking your memory, problem solving, counting, and language skills.
The doctor also may suggest a brain scan to show the normal and problem areas in the brain. Once the cause of the problem is discovered, you can ask what treatment might be best for you.
See your doctor if you are worried about your memory. It’s important to find out what is causing your memory problems.
Source: IlluminAge AgeWise with materials from MedlinePlus, a publication of the National Institutes of Health. For more information, read “Read Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help”http://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/forgetfulness to learn more about the causes of memory loss, including treatable conditions.