Is My Trouble Remembering Due to Aging or Alzheimer’s?

The difference between normal aging and issues that affect your independence
woman upset sitting on couch

You forget someone’s name. You lose your keys. You have delays in recalling words and names. Or what you want to say “just on the tip of your tongue.”

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So how can you tell if your memory lapses are a normal part of aging —  or an early sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease

Some memory complaints do occur frequently as you get older. Losing keys or not remembering names are usually a normal part of your aging process. Health experts say these are normal aging experiences.

But geriatrician Ronan Factora, MD, says it’s also extremely important to make sure you aren’t blaming other kinds of memory trouble on “just getting older.” 

“Memory concerns shouldn’t affect your ability to remain independent or perform your daily life activities. Forgetfulness should definitely be looked into by your doctor when it starts to alter your day-to-day life,” Dr. Factora says. “They’ll want to take a closer look to see if you’re able to do common tasks as easily as you did before to make sure there aren’t deeper problems,” he says.

When forgetting things means see your doctor

It can be hard to know when to be concerned about your memory.  Maybe you have too many other medical problems that distract you from bringing up your memory issues to your doctor. But it’s never a good idea to overlook your mental health.

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“Losing track of what season it is, for example, or forgetting where you are (or how you got there) are red flags you should talk to your doctor about, as these are seen more often with Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr. Factora says.

Report those types of concerns and any of the following to your doctor, especially if you have more than one of these symptoms and they aren’t going away over time:

  • Vision problems: Some people with Alzheimer’s develop problems judging the distance between two objects, or seeing color and contrast. Reading might become difficult.
  • Trouble making plans or following directions: With Alzheimer’s, as your brain changes, it can be hard to work out the logistics of a busy day, manage finances, cooking, getting dressed, paying bills, driving in familiar areas or taking medications. You might forget how to play a favorite game. When memory problems impair your ability to engage in everyday routines they should never be brushed off as a normal part of aging.
  • Having a hard time communicating: This goes beyond struggling to find the right word every so often. If you have Alzheimer’s, you might use the wrong word or a made-up name for a familiar object. You might lose track of your thoughts, have trouble following a conversation, or repeat yourself.
  • Personality changes: People who have Alzheimer’s sometimes withdraw from their friends or favorite activities and can become depressed, angry, suspicious or scared. They might get upset more easily than in the past. If this is happening a lot lately, call your doctor.
  • Losing things: Misplacing things often happens in everyone’s life but when it’s consistent and you can’t make a plan to to retrace your steps, call your doctor.
  • Poor judgment: People with Alzheimer’s often let their hygiene lapse or make bad decisions about whether food is still good to eat, how to spend money, and who to trust. If you experience these, also make an appointment with your doctor.
  • Inability to work or engage in social activity: When you are unable to stay employed, perform work-related tasks, join in community activities or keep doing your favorite hobbies, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

Other health reasons for memory loss

Though often dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may be the cause with memory complaints, there can be other reasons.

“Don’t put off talking to your doctor. Doing it early enough will help identify if the cause is reversible or not, since forgetfulness doesn’t always mean Alzheimer’s disease — and you want to make sure any other causes are being treated properly,” Dr. Factora says.

  • Sometimes depression can trigger memory issues, but depression often is accompanied by other symptoms like loss of interests in hobbies or activities, a feeling of worthlessness, sleep problems or loss of appetite.
  • A recent illness or hospitalization could cause a temporary period of confusion called delirium 
  • Medications – prescribed, over-the-counter or herbal can affect the brain
  • Medical conditions such as strokethyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies also could produce memory and/or cognitive problems.

What your doctor will do

When you get to your doctor’s appointment, a basic appointment will include a review of your memory or cognitive issues, how long the problems have been happening and any other mood, behavioral or movement problems you may be having.

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Cognitive testing (such as a Folstein Mini-Mental State Examination or Montreal Cognitive Assessment) may be performed to document the presence and severity of the cognitive concerns.

A screening for depression also may be performed, along with routine blood work. A CT scan of your brain also could be performed to exclude other problems.

“If you notice problems over six months and it’s affecting your quality of life, it’s crucial you have it checked,” Dr. Factora says. “The ultimate goal is to preserve your independence and to plan ahead if you need assistance.”

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