Memory Issues Concern

When Are Memory Issues a Cause for Concern?

When people start noticing memory problems in themselves or a family member, many immediately worry that they have the early stages of dementia or, more specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease — the most common type of dementia — is a brain disease that causes a steady decline in memory, thinking and reasoning abilities. It impacts one in 10 people over the age of 65, and one in three over the age of 85.

Some memory loss symptoms are more common as we age. And statistically speaking, most people will not be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The majority of memory issues are the result of the normal aging process. But how do you know when memory issues are a cause for concern? To help you differentiate between normal memory loss and dementia, we discuss the signs and symptoms of both.

Normal Memory Loss as We Age

Simple forgetfulness is a natural part of aging. Maybe you are losing your keys more frequently or you uncharacteristically failed to pay some bills on time. Such changes are normal. After all, our brains age just like other parts of the body.

  • Age-related memory loss is attributable to three main factors. As we age:
  • The hippocampus region of the brain, which is integral to the creation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates
  • There is a decrease in the levels of hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth
  • Blood flow to the brain decreases, which can impair memory and cognitive skills

If you experience memory issues, the odds are that your memory problem is not Alzheimer’s disease. Other conditions such as a vitamin deficiency or thyroid problem may be to blame.

However, you can help decrease your chances of experiencing cognitive decline by taking these steps:

  • Exercise regularly, including both cardio and strength-training
  • Eat a healthy diet, especially antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and foods high in omega-3 fats (such as salmon, tuna, trout, walnuts and flaxseed)
  • Don’t smoke
  • Manage stress
  • Remain active and social
  • Read, play strategy games and continue to learn new things
  • Get enough sleep


Memory Loss vs. Early Signs of Dementia

1. Recent Memory Loss

Normal Aging: being unable to recall information you just learned is a normal part of aging. If your family member can remember that information later, it’s probably just age-related memory loss. If they can’t recover new information, the problem could be dementia.

Early Sign of Dementia: difficulty with short-term memory is the most common early warning sign of dementia. A person may forget appointments or a new acquaintance’s name and won’t remember it later. The short-term nature of lost memories is an important distinction to remember. A person with dementia may forget that they already had their morning cup of coffee, but they’ll still remember the name of their favorite teacher from elementary school.

2. Forgetting How to Perform Everyday Tasks

Normal Aging: always compare current to past performance. If your mom has been burning the scrambled eggs since you were a child, don’t worry if she’s doing it now.

Early Sign of Dementia: if your mom used to be a gourmet cook, however, those burned eggs could be a symptom of dementia. Difficulties with task performance usually start with more complex activities like paying bills or using the microwave. Later, you may notice more dramatic changes, like forgetting how to pour a glass of water.

3. Trouble with Language and Conversation

Normal Aging: everyone forgets words and loses track of their thoughts, especially as they get older. If this happens now and then, it is just a side effect of normal memory loss. Difficulty with language will be much more obvious when the person is developing dementia.

Early Sign of Dementia: people with early-stage dementia have problems with language and conversation on an increasingly regular basis. They want to ask you to pass the salt, but they can’t remember what it’s called. Or they might use the wrong word, asking you to feed the dog when they have a cat. They know it’s a cat; they just mix up the words.

Sometimes, the person will also lose track of what they’re saying in the middle of a conversation. They might stop mid-sentence, not knowing how they meant to finish it, or not know how to respond in a conversation.

4. Unintentional, Frequent Repetition

Normal Aging: it’s normal to forget that you already did something. If a reminder is enough to jog the memory, this memory mishap is normal.

Early Sign of Dementia: when you’re having a conversation with someone who has early-stage dementia, you may notice that they repeat questions you’ve already answered. Like when they lose track of their words, it happens more often than is comfortable.

This is one way that a symptom can be both verbal and physical – just as they’ll repeat what they’ve said, they’ll also repeat what they did. Maybe your dad will eat two lunches in one day. If you tell your dad that he already ate lunch but he doesn’t believe you, start to keep a closer watch for other symptoms.

5. Getting Lost in Familiar Places

Normal Aging: as we get older, it becomes more difficult to remember the route to a new place. If you get lost at a new place, however, you are just fine navigating places you’ve been to many times, you likely do not have dementia.

Early Sign of Dementia: with dementia, those same lost feelings happen when a person is somewhere they’ve been multiple times before, like a relative’s home or the person’s own neighborhood. A person with early dementia might not remember where they are or how they arrived, even if they arrived 10 minutes ago.

If this has started to happen, make sure your family member always goes somewhere with someone. It’s easy for individuals with dementia to get lost or wander away when they don’t remember where they are or how they got there, which can lead to dangerous situations.

6. Losing Orientation to Time

Normal Aging: from time to time, everyone forgets what day it is. That’s nothing to worry about, especially if you remind the person and they recall that you’ve told them.

Early Sign of Dementia: if you tell someone it’s Thursday and five minutes later they think it’s Tuesday, start paying close attention to their sense of time. When you visit a person who has early-stage dementia, they might ask you why you’ve been away so long. They’re not being demanding or unreasonable – they genuinely think you’ve been gone for weeks, months, or even years. Time can pass very slowly in the mind of a person with dementia, making an hour seem like a day.

People with dementia may also have difficulty comprehending the passage of time. If it’s not happening right now, it’s hard for the person to conceptualize when it happened or will be happening.

What To Do if You’re Concerned About Memory Issues

However, if you are concerned that you or a loved one may have the early signs of dementia, the best thing to do is schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. They will discuss your concerns with you and may even be able to do some initial testing to determine if further screening is needed.

While there is not yet a cure, early diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s helps patients get the most benefit from available treatments, which can help ease symptoms. There are also numerous clinical trials underway, which you may be able to participate in.

As the U.S. population grows older, more resources are becoming available to those who are experiencing cognitive decline or dementia. In-home services and assistive technologies can help people stay independent longer. And, if eventually needed, more and more senior living communities are offering specialized memory care services in a warm, inviting setting — a far cry from the institutional-style “wards” of the past.

Memory Care Solutions

Memory care communities offer specialized care for seniors with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive conditions. These communities are properly equipped to manage symptoms like agitation, confusion or wandering, and they are staffed by caregivers who assist residents with self-care and communication.

Memory care facilities can be free-standing and independently operated, but most are residences within a nursing home, assisted living or continuing care retirement community. Either way, they provide residents with the highly specialized care that is needed by people with dementia or other cognitive conditions.