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Memory Loss: When It’s Normal and When to Worry

Memory Loss: When It’s Normal and When to Worry

How often do you find yourself going to reach for your keys only to find an empty space in the spot where you’re sure you left those darn things? If that or similar instances of memory loss or forgetfulness happen somewhat often you might start to worry.

Do not start to panic yet. That’s totally normal. About 40% of people age 65 and older deal with age-related memory loss, but only about 1% of those people end up progressing to dementia each year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Though that number is fairly low, it’s still a little disconcerting. How are you supposed to know if you’re one of those people in that 1% group? To get a better understanding, you have to first learn more about what’s behind those mental lapses.

What Causes Memory Loss

It’s not a foregone conclusion that you’ll slip into a permanent mental fog the older you get. The brain is like a muscle. You’ve got to exercise it often to keep it in peak shape, and that can be accomplished in a variety of ways.

Now, even if you do those brain teasers there could be some other factors working against you.

Biological Factors

As with many aspects of the human body, there are some things that are entirely out of your control which could make your memory a little slower to respond as you add on the years. There are three big contributors to age-related memory loss.

First off, the area of your brain that works on making and retrieving memories, called the hippocampus, starts to deteriorate with age. In that respect, your brain works just like your muscles, as we mentioned earlier.

That mental fitness is also up to hormones and proteins that repair your brain cells and essentially can grow new ones, too. Those hormones also start to decline with age.

You’re also dealing with decreased blood flow to the brain. Less blood flow can hinder your memory and cognitive skills.

Outside Factors

Memory loss doesn’t necessarily have to be associated with your age. There could be other, reversible factors at play. They are:

  • Medications
  • Minor head injury
  • Emotional disorders
  • Alcoholism
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Brain diseases

All of these medical conditions can be treated, but you have to narrow the issues down to which one is actually affecting you before directly assuming you’re suffering from dementia.

When it’s Normal

Now that we know a little more about what causes memory loss and forgetfulness, we can start to understand when there’s no need to worry. 

Take another look at the example we started with. Remember, we thought we left our keys in one spot, but they’re nowhere to be found? That’s nothing to worry about, just like it’s nothing to worry about if you forgot the example from the top of the page. 

You might also forget people’s names momentarily or call one son by your other son’s name (or, if you’re my mother, you might even call your son by the dog’s name before you arrive at the correct one). 

Find yourself having trouble focusing on one task at a time or walking into a room and not remembering why you went in there? It’s still nothing to lose sleep over. Remember, if you lose sleep that could lead to some more short-term memory loss.

All of these instances and many others are just a part of normal aging.

Forgetfulness is part of normal aging

When it Could be More Than Forgetfulness

The bottom line is to get to a specialist as soon as possible when your memory issues start impacting your ability to function during normal day-to-day activities. In the example of the lost keys, if you end up finding them but then can’t remember what they’re used for, that’s a red flag. 

If you notice any of these 10 warning signs you should immediately make an appointment with a doctor.

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  4. Confusion with time or place
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  8. Decreased poor judgment
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
  10. Changes in mood and personality

It can’t be overstated how important it is to see a physician if you notice any of those signs in yourself or someone else. Early detection can open doors to many treatments that might not be available once the issue is in a more advanced stage.