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 neurologist Terry Rolan, MD, gives 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. Rolan.
What can cause memory loss?
Memory loss can have a number of causes. Certain health conditions can lead to reversible memory problems, even though many are treatable. These may include:
- Medication side effects
- Certain vitamin deficiencies
- Head injury from a fall or accident
- Thyroid disorder
- Depression and anxiety
- Brain tumor or infection
- Sleep Disorders
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a type of memory loss. MCI is marked by someone having more memory 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. Many times, mild memory loss is due to non-neurologic causes. This is good as many of those can be treated.
Between 10% and 20% of people age 65 and older have MCI. Dr. Rolan says MCI can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, but not everyone with MCI will develop these conditions. According to a 2022 Alzheimer’s Association report, about one-third of people living with MCI due to Alzheimer’s develop dementia within five years.
Dementia refers to a group of disorders caused by more cognitive loss than just MCI. These changes affect memory, thinking, behavior and can impair normal function and relationships. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for a majority of cases.
Most types of dementia worsen over time and cannot be reversed. However, treatment can help with disease symptoms and improve the patients and caregivers quality of life.
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 reduce the effects in your life of age-related memory changes.
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, moderate your alcohol consumption and not smoking.
- Engage in social activities, such as volunteering, a book club, church services, or time with friends and family. Social isolation is linked to a higher risk of dementia, according to one study.
- 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 neurology specialist, a doctor specializing in brain and nervous system disorders.