If you’ve ever misplaced your keys, temporarily forgotten someone’s name or paused to remember why you walked into a room, don’t worry. It’s normal to experience occasional forgetfulness, especially as we age.
But there are memory problems that can signal something more serious. Summit Health neurologists David Blady, MD, and Avery Katz, MD, give us the scoop on memory loss — what is and is not normal, possible causes and what to do if you’re concerned about your forgetfulness or someone else’s.
When is memory loss not normal?
Memory loss that worsens over time and disrupts daily life is not normal. Unlike typical age-related forgetfulness, these memory problems make it hard to do everyday activities or maintain a social life. For example, someone might:
- Ask the same question repeatedly
- Forget a conversation they just had
- Have difficulty with routine tasks, such as housework or paying bills
- Become lost while walking or driving to a familiar location
- Struggle to find or use the right words
- Not take care of themselves as they once did
- Withdraw from hobbies or social activities
“When it’s noticeable that memory is declining more quickly than one’s peers, it should raise concern with that person and their caregivers,” says Dr. Blady.
What can cause memory loss?
Memory loss can have a number of causes. Certain health conditions can lead to reversible memory problems, even though most are treatable. These may include:
- Medication side effects
- Not getting enough nutrients in your diet
- Head injury from a fall or accident
- Lyme disease
- Thyroid disorder
- Depression and anxiety
- Brain tumor or infection
- Parkinson’s disease
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is another possible cause of memory loss. MCI is marked by someone having more memory or thinking problems than others their age. While these memory changes are noticeable – forgetting appointments or losing things often, for example – they’re not severe enough to disrupt daily life.
Between 10% and 20% of people aged 65 or older with MCI will develop dementia over a one-year period according to the National Institute on Aging. Dr. Katz says MCI can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, but not everyone with MCI will develop these conditions.
Dementia refers to a group of disorders caused by abnormal brain changes. These changes affect memory, thinking and behavior, impairing normal function and relationships. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of cases according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most types of dementia worsen over time and cannot be reversed. However, treatment can help with disease progression and symptoms.
Early diagnosis is important in treatment decisions, explains Dr. Katz. A newer class of medications known as anti-amyloid agents and the majority of studies are geared towards patients with MCI or early stages of Alzheimer’s.
How can I deal with memory changes as I get older?
Currently, there are no proven ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. However, you can take steps to deal with age-related memory changes and reduce your risk for dementia. Here are some tips:
- Exercise the brain by learning new skills and doing activities such as reading, solving puzzles, or playing card games.
- Make healthy lifestyle choices, including regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, and not smoking. Dr. Katz notes a diet high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish and unsaturated fats – known as the Mediterranean diet – as well as physical and mental exercise and activities are associated with a decrease in Alzheimer’s.
- Engage in social activities, such as volunteering, a book club, church services, or time with friends and family. Social isolation may also be linked to a higher risk of dementia.
- Have a daily routine and use tools like to-do lists and calendars to stay on task.
What should I do if I notice signs of memory loss?
Talk with a doctor if you notice any memory loss signs that concern you. Finding the cause of problems will help determine the right treatment plan for yourself or a loved one.
Diagnosis usually starts with a physical exam, lab tests, reviewing medical and family history and tests to evaluate memory and thinking skills. Your provider may order additional tests, such as a brain scan, to help identify or rule out certain conditions. You may be referred to a neurologist, a doctor specializing in brain and nervous system disorders.
“We have multiple neurology and mental health experts who can perform detailed exams,” says Dr. Blady. “And we have access to the required lab and imaging tests – all the tools necessary.”