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When Does Forgetfulness Become a Medical Problem?

Mental Health

September 15, 2020
Man with a remote

Do you keep forgetting where you left the TV remote? Are you having a harder time remembering the names of people you’ve met? Our memories tend to get worse as we age, but sometimes forgetfulness can be a sign of something more severe. Understanding symptoms of dementia and other brain disorders can help people better understand when forgetting is normal, and when it becomes a medical problem.

Aging and Memory


Many people worry that any memory problems are a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. However, memory loss is often part of the normal aging process.

There are actually many different types of memory, which are differently affected by aging. Being able to remember people’s faces or recall how to complete different tasks is usually not affected by aging. On the other hand, other types of memory often fade with age. Remembering names, event details, or facts that aren’t often used tends to become more difficult. Additionally, older adults often feel like they can’t focus or think as quickly as they used to.

Normal Aging Symptoms

According to the National Institute on Aging, small lapses in memory are common as you get older. Things like this aren’t usually a major cause for concern:

  • Occasionally having a hard time remembering the date
  • Sometimes losing keys, glasses, your phone, or other objects
  • Feeling like a word is on the tip of your tongue, but not being able to remember it
  • Forgetting to pay a bill
  • Occasionally making a poor decision

These types of things happen to everyone as we age. If they only happen occasionally and don’t cause any major disruptions, they probably aren’t a cause for concern.

When Should I Be Worried?

When the above symptoms of forgetfulness become more common and start causing big problems in living your life, it may be time to talk to a doctor. Some symptoms that might indicate a bigger problem include:

  • Regularly losing track of what day or year it is
  • Frequently losing items and not finding them
  • Difficulties with carrying on a normal conversation, or saying the same things over and over
  • Losing the ability to take care of normal daily activities or chores, such as frequently not paying the bills
  • Often getting yourself into trouble, or having loved ones express concern about poor judgment

When a person loses the ability to perform normal activities like driving, frequently gets lost, or seems to be confused about familiar places and people, this may be a sign of a more serious problem.

Causes of Memory Problems

Dementia and Age-Related Brain Disorders

Some people with less severe memory problems may have mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People with MCI have mild memory problems such as having difficulty with conversations or forgetting to go to events. They may also have other problems like loss of sense of smell. People with MCI have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, but regular doctor’s appointments and focusing on maintaining brain health can help people reduce their risk.

Dementia is the term for more severe memory loss. People who have dementia also have problems with other functions such as speech, understanding visual information, or problem solving. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. This condition is genetic, so if you have a family member who had this disease, you are more likely to get it. However, some people with no family history can get Alzheimer’s, and some people who have a genetic link do not end up getting it. People with Alzheimer’s disease have memory problems that get worse over time. In late stages of the disease, a person’s body can shut down completely. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but some medications can reduce symptoms and slow down the disease.

There are also other types of dementia. Lewy body dementia happens when certain proteins build up in the brain, and leads to problems with movement and memory. Vascular dementia may occur when there are problems with blood getting into the brain, such as after a stroke.

Other Medical Issues That Can Affect Memory

Other potential causes of forgetfulness include:

  • Brain disorders: There are several other types of brain conditions that can look similar to dementia, including Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Huntington’s disease, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus: This condition is caused by a buildup of fluid in the brain. Its symptoms can appear similar to dementia, but patients can often recover fairly well following treatment.
  • Minor head trauma or injury: If someone has recently had an accident or fall, they may have a concussion or injury that impairs their memory.
  • Other brain problems: Infections, clots, or tumors can cause memory problems.
  • Emotional problems: Mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression can lead to forgetfulness. Major life changes like retirement, moving, or death of a loved one can cause large emotional changes. Sometimes negative feelings go away quickly, but when they don’t, a doctor can help people manage them or learn how to cope. When people address mental or emotional issues through medication or counseling, they can sometimes improve their memory and brain function.
  • Hypothyroidism: The thyroid produces hormones that help the organs in your body work correctly. Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid has trouble making enough hormones and can lead to dementia-like problems.

Other Factors That Cause Memory Problems

Some medications may cause memory loss as a side effect. Alternately, sometimes taking certain medications together can cause drug interactions that lead to negative effects on the brain. Your doctor may be able to help you figure out which medications may be a problem, and switch you to other drugs that have fewer side effects. However, don’t stop taking a medication before talking to your doctor.

Several other things can play a role in forgetfulness. Some of these factors are:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking heavily
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • High blood pressure

Your doctor may be able to help you rule out other potential causes of memory loss, or help you figure out strategies to address these factors.

Getting a Diagnosis

Elder with doctor

If you or a loved one is experiencing concerning symptoms, or if you are worried about a health condition that may affect brain function, then it may be time to talk to a doctor. A good first step is talking to your primary care provider about your concerns. Your doctor may ask you questions related to when you first noticed your memory problems, what medications you’re currently taking, how much alcohol you drink, any recent accidents you’ve had, or whether you’ve experienced any recent illnesses. Your primary care provider will likely also give you a physical exam to see whether there are any signs of other medical issues. The exam may include blood tests, imaging tests, and cognitive function tests. If you are on Medicare, know that a cognitive assessment is covered each year.

If your primary care provider thinks there is reason for concern, they may want you to see a specialist. Doctors who specialize in memory and brain function issues include geriatricians, neurologists, and psychiatrists.

It’s also possible that your doctor feels that your symptoms fit into the normal aging process. Your doctor may be able to reassure you that you are aging healthily and that your symptoms are normal.

Advantages of Getting a Diagnosis

Dealing with memory problems or brain issues can be scary. Many people may put off talking to a doctor because they’re worried about getting bad news. However, addressing any potential health problems can greatly improve your life.

The main advantage of getting a diagnosis is that there may be a treatment. Some diseases are reversible, and treatment can help you feel like your old self. Even for diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, where there’s no cure, medications can help manage symptoms. Some medications can also slow the progression of the disease so that you stay healthier for longer. Additionally, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and counseling can help people manage symptoms of dementia.

Another advantage of getting a diagnosis is being able to plan ahead. If you have early warning that you are developing dementia, you and your loved ones can take time to learn more about the disease and make decisions about how you want to manage your health. You can decide how you might want to be cared for, choose a care facility, or make plans for receiving care at home. Many resources can help you and your loved ones make a plan for your health.

Maintaining Memory and Brain Health

Elder with rubik's cube

Whether or not you have risk factors for developing brain disorders, there are things you can do to help keep your memory sharp and your brain healthy as you age. Here are some strategies that research has shown can help delay dementia:

  • Get more physical activity: People who spend more time sitting around are more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Getting more exercise leads to improved memory and brain function.
  • Change your diet: Some research has found that people who eat more vegetables and fruit are less likely to develop memory problems as they get older. Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods and low in saturated fats can help keep people’s brains healthy. Eating omega-3 fatty acids, found in seafood, flaxseed, soybean, and canola oil, might also boost brain health, although the research is somewhat inconclusive. Additional foods that have been linked to lowering dementia risk and improving memory include coffee and blueberries. Avoiding sugar and eating fewer calories can also help boost memory.
  • Get more sleep: Memories are stored and strengthened and the brain is recharged while sleeping. Getting better sleep can help your mental function. Try going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day, and sleeping in a dark and quiet space. Practice good sleep hygiene.
  • Reduce stress: Feeling more stressed can make you more likely to forget. In one study of older adults with memory problems, learning how to use mindfulness techniques to reduce stress helped with memory. Many apps and YouTube videos now exist that can walk people through mindfulness meditation. Other ways of managing stress may include spending time with friends and family, going on a walk, playing with a pet, reading an enjoyable book, or listening to music.
  • Mental workouts: Although memory problems become more common with age, the older brain can still learn and adapt. People can take advantage of this concept by challenging their brains on a regular basis. Brain-training smartphone apps such as Lumosity may help people improve their memory and problem-solving capabilities. Other mental workouts may include doing crossword puzzles, problem solving puzzles, finding a new hobby, or taking a class. Video games may even help improve memory and cognitive function!
  • Using mnemonic devices: When people use special tricks to help them remember pieces of information, their brains actually build new connections that help improve memory overall! One example of a mnemonic device is to make a song out of the information you need to remember. The ABC song is a mnemonic device that helps people remember all of the letters of the alphabet in order. Another mnemonic device is using a rhyme to remember a fact. A famous example of this is the spelling rule, “I before E, except after C.”
  • Being more social: Spending time with others can help keep your brain healthy. Try visiting your friends and loved ones, participating in activities through a local community or senior center, or volunteering. In times of pandemic, you can social distance but don’t need to socially isolate.

Some people may be at higher risk for developing brain disorders or having poor memory than others. If you’re worried about memory problems, or you think you or a loved one is starting to have symptoms of memory loss, talk to your doctor. It is also important to know that there are things everyone can do to decrease their risk of brain decline. Keeping your body and your mind healthy can lead to better brain function as you age.

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.
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