We’ve all misplaced keys, blanked on someone’s name, or forgotten a phone number. When we’re young, we don’t tend to pay much mind to these lapses, but as we grow older, sometimes we worry about what they mean. While it’s true that certain brain changes are inevitable when it comes to aging, major memory problems are not one of them. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between normal age-related forgetfulness and the symptoms that may indicate a developing cognitive problem.
Memory and aging
Forgetfulness is a common complaint among many of us as we get older. You start to talk about a movie you saw recently when you realize you can’t remember the title. You’re giving directions to your house when you suddenly blank on a familiar street name. You find yourself standing in the middle of the kitchen wondering what you went in there for.
Memory lapses can be frustrating, but most of the time they aren’t cause for concern. Age-related memory changes are not the same thing as dementia.
As we grow older, we experience physiological changes that can cause glitches in brain functions we’ve always taken for granted. It takes longer to learn and recall information. We’re not as quick as we used to be. In fact, we often mistake this slowing of our mental processes for true memory loss. But in most cases, if we give ourselves time, the information will come to mind.
Memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process
The brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss is not an inevitable result of aging. But just as it is with muscle strength, you have to use it or lose it. Your lifestyle, habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of your brain. Whatever your age, there are many ways you can improve your cognitive skills, prevent memory loss, and protect your grey matter.
Furthermore, many mental abilities are largely unaffected by normal aging, such as:
Your ability to do the things you’ve always done and continue to do often
The wisdom and knowledge you’ve acquired from life experience
Your innate common sense and your ability to form reasonable arguments and judgments
3 causes of age-related memory loss
The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates with age.
Hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth also decline with age.
Older people often experience decreased blood flow to the brain, which can impair memory and lead to changes in cognitive skills.
Normal forgetfulness vs. dementia
For most people, occasional lapses in memory are a normal part of the aging process, not a warning sign of serious mental deterioration or the onset of dementia. The following types of memory lapses are normal among older adults and generally are not considered warning signs of dementia:
Occasionally forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys.
Forgetting names of acquaintances or blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name.
Occasionally forgetting an appointment or walking into a room and forgetting why you entered.
Becoming easily distracted or having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation.
Not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”
Does your memory loss affect your ability to function?
The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former isn’t disabling. The memory lapses have little impact on your daily performance and ability to do what you want to do. Dementia, on the other hand, is marked by a persistent, disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment, and abstract thinking.
When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, you may be experiencing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, or another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.
Normal age-related memory changesSymptoms that may indicate dementiaAble to function independently and pursue normal activities, despite occasional memory lapsesDifficulty performing simple tasks (paying bills, dressing appropriately, washing up); forgetting how to do things you’ve done many timesAble to recall and describe incidents of forgetfulnessUnable to recall or describe specific instances where memory loss caused problems; May pause to remember directions, but doesn’t get lost in familiar placesGets lost or disoriented even in familiar places; unable to follow directionsOccasional difficulty finding the right word, but no trouble holding a conversationWords are frequently forgotten, misused, or garbled; Repeats phrases and stories in same conversationJudgment and decision-making ability the same as alwaysTrouble making choices; May show poor judgment or behave in socially inappropriate ways
See your healthcare professional if you are concerned about your memory.