We have all experienced it, or we all will: walking into a room, full of good intentions to complete a task or share something with someone we know, only to pause and realize that we have forgotten what we meant to do or say. Most of us laugh this off, knowing that sometimes this just happens. But when do such small signs of memory loss become a concern for ourselves or for the seniors in our lives? What is a normal amount of memory loss? When should a doctor be involved to see if the memory loss is a symptom of something far more serious?
Normal Memory Loss
Normal memory loss can occur at any time. As we age, we may forget details about our childhood, such as teachers’ names or details about our family’s lives. We may forget a deadline for a report at work or the words to a song we have not heard in a while, but we can be reminded later and realize—ah ha! We had forgotten. More often than not, normal memory loss can be reactivated with information or stimulus.
Normal memory loss does not interfere with activities of daily living (ADLs). We remember how to use the stove or the shower; we remember where our jobs or the supermarket are located. Even if we forget little details, we can set reminders in our smartphones or on a calendar to get us to meetings on time or to remember birthdays. For most of the day, casual forgetfulness impacts our lives only in tiny ways, never endangering our lives or livelihoods.
As we age, we may have some trouble doing mental activities quickly. As our bodies become less able to produce new and healthy brain cells, we may find that it takes us a little longer to complete certain tasks, like a crossword puzzle or solving a particularly complex problem at work. This is also normal! It may take us somewhat longer to learn new things, as well, like mastering new types of technology or remembering new driving routes. This is not cause for concern, since most of these lapses can be solved by patience, time, and practice.
Emotional distress can also cause memory loss. If you are under a lot of stress—maybe your job is taking on a challenging project, or someone in your family is very ill—or experiencing depression or anxiety, you may find that you are more forgetful. Essentially, the brain devotes so much time and energy to surviving under those conditions that it does not have anything extra left over to dedicate to memory. Once these stressors are resolved, you may find that your memory improves. Ignoring symptoms over time may permanently harm your brain, though, so be sure to see a doctor if you feel you may be under undue stress or feel anxiety and/or depression.
Essentially, if you are still able to perform every task you need to in order to care for yourself, but you experience forgetfulness or struggle with complex tasks, you are very likely just experiencing normal age-related memory loss. Eating a healthy diet, exercising, practicing brain exercises, reading books, and having social experiences can help your brain remain healthy throughout the aging process, and may protect against more memory loss. Losing your glasses once in a while or forgetting the day of the week (only to remember it later) are not signs of serious medical conditions or cognitive decline.
Abnormal Memory Loss: When to See a Doctor
A doctor should be called when you or your loved one cannot continue to complete your ADLs. Forgetting appointments and medications frequently, for example, may endanger life, especially if it is medication for a heart condition like high blood pressure or a chronic illness like diabetes. Forgetting names, places, and dates permanently, as well, may be a sign of dementia. Episodes of confusion which result in not knowing where you are or who the people around you are may also be a sign that your brain is in distress.
Those with severe memory loss also have trouble solving complex problems or learning new things. This is not the same as a grandparent who struggles to record a television show on a new cable device; this is closer to someone who cannot remember or discover how to use their own can opener to get to a helping of tuna fish. This problem may seem simple to you, but the steps to this task are complex when your brain refuses to give the proper information. Instead of supplying information normally (Grab the can opener, fix the mouth to the rim of the can, grip it firmly, turn the handle, etc.), the brain simply blanks.
Memory loss often seems scary, and it can be. But if you or your loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, a doctor can help. Medication, certain types of therapies, support groups, and even specialized diets can help your brain function as well as possible. Consult with a doctor if memory loss becomes a concern. Getting a medical opinion is always advisable.
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