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Memory and aging: What’s normal?

Man with postit note on forehead looking confused

There’s a definite difference between forgetting where you left your keys and finding yourself completely lost on a familiar route home. As we grow older, lapses in memory, like these, are the root cause of much angst. In fact, many worry that even slight “brain farts” could be a sign of something more troubling – like dementia. To help clear up the confusion, experts from the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing, explain the difference between normal age-related forgetfulness and symptoms that may indicate a larger health problem, and when to seek help.

“As one ages, there are changes in our memory, but very often the question is when is it normal, when is it abnormal and when I need to go see my primary care physician,” said Wanda Seaback, clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing.

Around the age of 65 it’s important times to take note of significant memory changes, as this is the age in when a majority of patients are diagnosed with dementia. However, if you are in your 40s or 50s and notice disturbing changes in memory, talk to your primary care physician as, although rare, early-onset Alzheimer’s can develop around this age.

So, what types of memory loss are normal and what is cause for concern? Seaback and colleague Pat Ehlert, also a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Nursing, provide examples for some of the most common normal age-related memory lapses, as well as dementia-related symptoms to be on the lookout for:

Normal: Forgetting the name of a person you met last night
Cause for concern: Forgetting recently learned information
Reason: Forgetting a person’s name is something a lot of people encounter and is not cause for concern. Seaback and Ehlert both agree that forgetting recently learned information, as in a few minutes ago, is one of the most common signs of dementia.

Normal: Forgetting where you put your keys
Cause for concern: Forgetting where you put your keys, but not being able to remember where you last had your keys.
Reason: With normal memory loss you may misplace your keys, but you are able to trace your steps and figure out where your last had your keys. Those with dementia are not able to problem solve and cannot remember when and where they last had their keys.

Normal: Not being able to remember the date or day of the week
Cause for concern: Not being able to remember what the season is or the last major holiday
Reason: Like when you lose your keys, with normal memory loss you are able to figure out what day it is on your own by looking at a calendar. People with dementia become increasingly disoriented as the disease progresses, and cannot take the steps to figure out the problem on their own.

Normal: Missing a payment
Cause for concern: Not being able to manage a budget or forget how to balance a checkbook
Reason: Everyone forgets things like making a payment on time every now and then, but dementia patients forget how to manage a budget.

Normal: Forgetting a certain word that is on the tip of your tongue, but eventually remember
Cause for concern: Not being able to hold a conversation
Reason: The main thing here is that with normal memory loss, we eventually remember the word or what we were trying to express. People with dementia become fixated on a phrase or even a single word, which prevents them from having a normal conversation.

Normal: Going to a room and forgetting what you came in for
Cause for concern: Becoming lost in a familiar place
Reason: Everyone has experienced forgetting what you came into a room for, but people who become lost easily in places they were once familiar with is something to talk with your primary care physician about.

When memory loss begins to affect your daily life, it becomes a real issue. As in the examples above, losing something or forgetting a word every now and then isn’t going to affect your everyday life, but the underlying issues behind concerning signs, like problem solving and not being able to retrieve portions of important information will.

“A lot of times, people with dementia will recognize that something is not quite right, but are unable to pinpoint exactly what is going on,” Ehlert said. For this reason, it is important for family and friends to be on the look out for these signs, and if they recognize them, encourage loved ones to see their primary care physician. Memory loss affects everyone at some point in their life, but it is important to be aware of the signs of dementia.

To help ward off memory loss in any case, Ehlert suggests remaining physically active and keeping your brain active by reading, playing word or number games and strategy games with family and friends.

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