Almost all of us of a certain age -- say, anywhere north of 40 -- worry at some point about memory glitches. No wonder. Our brains begin to deteriorate by our late 20s. But some memory troubles are signs that there may be something more seriously amiss than normal aging.
"Everybody's memory is different, so you have to use your own as a baseline to notice changes that are worrisome," says University of Wisconsin geriatric psychiatrist Ken Robbins. "But certain signs are more strongly associated with a problem like Alzheimer's."
When to worry? The following five signs of Alzheimer's disease, which you yourself might notice, suggest a trip to your doctor, a neurologist, a psychiatrist specializing in geriatrics or memory disorders, or a geriatrician. A thorough evaluation can also rule out other things that can cause memory loss besides Alzheimer's -- for example, medication side effects, depression, pregnancy, and stress.
Sign #1: Your memory problems frighten you.
It's one thing to get irritated when you lose your keys. Or to search a vast parking lot for your car after a concert, growing more upset by the minute. Everybody experiences such frustrations. But when you feel downright uneasy about the oddness or frequency of memory lapses -- say, you can't remember where you parked the car and there it is, right in your driveway -- that's emotional information to pay attention to.
"For many people with early dementia, the nature of the memory problems frighten them or cause a strong emotional reaction," Robbins says. The fear tends to stem from knowing in your gut that something's "just not right."
Other examples: You're uneasy because you can't explain how your car keys wound up in the refrigerator -- and it's the second or third time you've found them in an odd spot. Or you're driving down the road and suddenly have no idea where you are or where you're heading -- and a few moments later, you realize you're on the same old road to work.
Worry sign #2: You've changed how you work or play because of memory problems.
A hallmark distinction between normal memory loss and dementia is that the symptoms interfere with your ability to conduct everyday life. Many people with early dementia are unable to do certain tasks as well as they once did, but they're still cognizant enough to be aware of some of the shortcomings.
So they compensate: They make detailed to-do lists, and then leave reminder notes to consult the to-do list. They send more e-mails, because the disembodied voices on phone calls are becoming hard to follow. They ask others for help. They buy more takeout because their cooking gets messed up. They abandon a craft because it never turns out up to their standards any more. They give up driving under certain conditions (with the radio on, at night, on highways, with others in the car).