We all misplace our keys or forget a name from time to time. When you're younger, you don't get hung up on these lapses in memory, but as you age you may worry about the implications of them. While memory lapses can be frustrating, more often than not they are no cause for concern. But sometimes age-related memory loss can be the early signs of something more serious, which is why it's important to know the differences between Alzheimer's, dementia and general age-related memory loss.
Memory loss and aging
According to the Mayo Clinic, the word "dementia" is an umbrella term that describes a set of related symptoms, including impaired memory, language, reasoning and other thinking skills. Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior. Symptoms of Alzheimer's eventually grow severe enough to interfere with daily tasks. In 2020, as many as 5.8 million Americans were living with Alzheimer's disease.
Memory loss associated with "normal" aging, on the other hand, is common and expected. Cleveland Clinic states that several cognitive functions decline gradually as we age, including our memory, language comprehension, executive functions (planning, abstract thinking) and verbal intelligence. It's important to know the key differences between age-related memory loss and signs suggesting you should see a doctor.
Normal forgetfulness vs. signs of something more serious
The following experiences are normal when experienced occasionally:
- Misplacing things such as keys or glasses
- Forgetting names or accidentally calling someone by the wrong name
- Forgetting an appointment or plan
- Becoming easily distracted or having to reread something
- Having difficulty retrieving something that's "on the tip of your tongue"
If memory loss is starting to disrupt your life, it may be time to see a doctor. Early signs of Alzheimer's include:
- Asking the same questions repeatedly
- Forgetting common words when speaking
- Taking longer to complete familiar tasks
- Mixing words up frequently
- Misplacing items in inappropriate places (i.e. putting car keys in the refrigerator)
- Getting lost while walking or driving in a familiar area
- Having changes in mood or behavior for no apparent reason
While Alzheimer's and other types of dementia are difficult and progressive diseases, minor cognitive degeneration is common and a natural part of aging — but it can be helped! Some ways to protect your memory and keep your brain sharp include:
Get physical exercise. Physical activity increases blood flow to your whole body, including your brain, which can help keep your mind healthy.
Stay mentally active. While physical exercise helps keep your body in shape, mental exercises help keep your brain in shape.
Eat well. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other natural foods have been shown to improve blood flow and memory.
Socialize regularly. Staying social can help fight off stress and depression, which have both been linked to memory loss.
Declutter your life. Keeping things orderly in your home, car or office is a great way to set your memory up for success.
Sleep well. Sleeping 7 to 9 hours each night is advised for adults. After all, a good night’s rest can help you process the memories you make each day and maintain past experiences.
Talk to your doctor. If memory loss or cognitive decline is affecting your ability to accomplish daily tasks, it's time to get in touch with your doctor.
While age-related memory loss can be frustrating (and even scary at times), it's important to know the difference between natural aging and signs of a more serious condition. Here at El Camino Health, we aim to educate you on these key differences so that you know when — and how — to act. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to get in touch today.
This article first appeared in the June 2022 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.