What busy midlifer hasn't blanked on a name, forgotten why she walked into a room, or totally missed a meeting because he didn't remember it? Memory lapses affect nearly all adults. Wondering if it's Alzheimer's disease is only natural, given that someone develops Alzheimer's every 69 seconds, including a growing number of baby boomers as well as 200,000 people in their 40s and 50s.
But not all memory loss is caused by Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. In fact, the following five common conditions for overstressed or overworked adults can all create symptoms of memory loss that usually have nothing to do with dementia.
1. Memory loss culprit: Basic chronic stress
Stress of any kind -- worry about a deadline, eating poorly, moving too fast, having a bad day -- causes the body to secrete "alert" hormones. When the stress passes, the body returns to normal. Unless, that is, the crazy hours or worry or whatever the stressor is persist, as is often true when a major life issue, like caregiving, is layered on top of a busy work schedule.
In that case, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline don't turn off. They wreak havoc in the hippocampus of the brain, damaging cells needed for memory storage and retrieval. Net result: memory lapses galore.
What helps: You've heard all the basic stress-reduction advice before: Eat right, sleep more, exercise regularly, relax -- and for good reason. Those things really work. Even small pick-me-ups can help reduce stress in the short run.
2. Memory loss culprit: Too much information
The brain is an amazing storage system. But storing too much information in your brain can cause memory loss. When people are unable to declutter their minds, it becomes harder to retrieve information on call, found researchers at Concordia University in 2011, reporting in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Older adults seem to be more affected than younger ones -- perhaps because they have accumulated that much more data in their lifetimes.
What helps: Sleep, relaxation exercises, learning a language, and listening to music can all help the brain get rid of unnecessary extra information, the researchers say.
3. Memory loss culprit: Lack of sleep
Working adults with full family responsibilities, such as child-rearing and/or caregiving, tend to burn the candle at both ends to get everything done. What's lost? Sleep. Yet less than optimal sleep may "age" the brain, according to research. A 2011 British study in the journal Sleep found that middle-aged adults who get less than six to eight hours of sleep a night are at risk for declines in brain function that may make them function as if four to seven years older.
What helps: You guessed it -- more sleep. Health-conscious adults tend to focus on diet and exercise but overlook this basic effect on cognitive wellness. Power napping can help the brain to organize and refresh memory. Also, if you're caring for a loved one who's up all night, causing you to lose sleep, talk to his or her doctor about medication to help sleep, and explore respite care options.
4. Memory loss culprit: Multitasking
Many adults pride themselves on their ability to do several things at once. It gives an illusion of accomplishing more, faster -- literally an illusion, because neuroimaging studies show that the brain doesn't really focus on several things at the same time. It gives its attention to one thing for microseconds, and then the other, and then back again. All that switching of attention means that when you're attending to one thing, you're not attending to the other. This can create memory loss -- what was it you were thinking about a few milliseconds ago? You can literally miss information, and miss storing it even in your brain's "scratch pad" of immediate memory.
What helps: Consider memory glitches as a warning sign that your multitasking isn't going quite as effectively as you'd like to think. Try attending to just one task at a time. Turn off your e-mail bell if it's disrupting your progress on something else, for example.
5. Memory loss culprit: Distraction
Those details you're not remembering? It may not be that you've forgotten them, but that you're having trouble retrieving them because your mind is distracted by other thoughts. University of California-Berkeley researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to discover that older adults often couldn't filter out unnecessary information, and this interfered with the ability to remember necessary information.
What helps: Sleep, stress management, and less multitasking help minimize distraction. So can relying on lists, calendars, alarms, and written reminders to help you organize information and ease the load on your short-term memory.