December 13, 2016

Memory lapses are normal. But when should you worry?

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on April 1, 2019.

Minor memory lapses are common as people age and aren't usually a sign that a person is developing a more serious condition like Alzheimer's, Christopher Mele reports for the New York Times—but certain warning signs can point to something more serious.

Learn 5 strategies to build a successful memory disorders program

Most people's memory begins to decline by age 45, said Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

According to experts from the Center for Brain-Mind Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, six normal memory problems occur as people age:

  • Forgetting facts over time;
  • Absentmindedness (such as forgetting your keys);
  • Not being able to retrieve a memory, or the so-called "it's-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue" feeling;
  • Misattribution, or when you get certain details wrong when recalling an event;
  • The "power of suggestion," or when information you learn about memories after the fact modifies a memory; and
  • Memory bias, or when memories change because of your feelings in the current moment.

Carrington Wendell, a neuropsychology specialist at the Anne Arundel Medical Group in Maryland, said distractions and other factors can make some memory mistakes more likely. "Whenever our brains are taxed by multiple demands, cognitive 'slips' or errors are more likely to occur due to a concept called memory 'interference,'" she explained.

UCLA's Small added that stress, lack of sleep, certain medications, and health problems such as infections and depression can also impair memory. And Thomas Wisniewski, director of the Center for Cognitive Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said that diabetes and high blood pressure can also make people more forgetful.

When to worry

But while all of these kinds of memory lapses are normal, Wisniewski said that more serious memory loss presents in distinctive ways. For instance, misplacing car keys is normal—but forgetting how to use them is not.

Ann Norwich, director of the adult gerontology nurse practitioner program at York College of Pennsylvania, said another warning sign is misnaming things, such as calling a table an oven. People with severe memory loss also may become very angry or irritable when questioned about their memory issues.

Memory problems for some elderly people can be a sign of serious problems such as dementia or mild cognitive impairment, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Small noted that the risk of dementia increases with age, rising from 10 percent at age 65 or older to 50 percent by age 85. He said it's important for family members to be on the lookout for memory loss and cognitive decline because dementia frequently can develop over a period of years without being noticed.

The National Institute on Aging noted that symptoms of dementia can include:

  • Becoming confused about people, places, and time;
  • Being unable to remember things;
  • Getting lost in familiar places;
  • Neglecting hygiene, nutrition, and personal safety
  • Not being able to follow directions; and
  • Repeating the same stories or asking the same questions again and again.

Ultimately, Small said, the only way to tell whether cognitive issues are a normal part of the aging process or a sign of something more serious is to consult with a health care professional (Mele, New York Times, 12/5; National Institute on Aging website, accessed 12/13).

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