Worried About Your Memory? 5 Signs It's Serious

How to tell when memory trouble might signal Alzheimer's or another reason to seek help
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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).

Worry sign #3: Friends or family point out mistakes and/or express concern.

Are your loved ones making comments about your memory or urging you to get it checked? If not, and you feel like you're keeping lapses to yourself, they may well be ordinary lapses. But if others are calling you on goofs, they may be onto something.

A 2010 study at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that family and friends tend to be able to spot the early warning signs of Alzheimer's disease even better than traditional screening tests and high-tech measures. What they're apt to notice: Symptoms that you may not even be aware of -- that you're repeating stories or questions numerous times, often word for word, in a short period, for example; or that you seem more apathetic and withdrawn than usual. Or others notice changes in your ability to independently conduct everyday life (work, cooking, money management).

What you may notice yourself: a sense that you're having to defend yourself a lot. "What happens is that relatives notice mistakes, and you -- the person with memory loss -- find yourself constantly in arguments with people about what you said or did," geriatric psychiatrist Robbins explains. "You're on the defensive a lot."

Noticing cover-ups

Worry sign #4: You notice friends or family starting to cover for you.

"Don't worry, Hon, I'll order for you." "Oh no, I've got it" (at the cashier). "Oh, anybody could get lost on these twisty roads, dear. Want me to drive now?"

When you increasingly hear these kinds of "smoothing over" or "taking over" statements from family or friends, they can be a sign that others are seeing problems they're not willing to address directly.

Covering up is a sign that they've lost confidence in your capacity to do things, University of Wisconsin's Ken Robbins says. Difficulty managing money, for example, is a common early sign of dementia because it involves keeping track of details and making judgments. Other areas where relatives may rush in to cover: driving, cooking, and giving directions.

Having trouble with choices

Worry sign #5: You find it hard to make choices.

People with early dementia are often oblivious to certain mistakes, like where they've mislaid something or that they've just repeated themselves -- again. But one symptom they do tend to notice, and feel uncomfortable about, is not being able to make quick decisions.

It becomes difficult, and takes longer, to choose from among several options -- off a menu or a buffet, from the closet, or from a list of movies, for example.

"If you used to be a definitive person and now you can't work your way through choices, that's a red flag," psychiatrist Ken Robbins says. "Choosing involves enough cognitive powers -- remembering what you like, thinking about how the options differ, and thinking about what you want now -- that it's a problem that shows up early on."

Learn 5 signs of memory trouble you probably don't have to worry about.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

5 months, said...

I am extreme worry about my memory loss.i am only 23 year old and i have server memory loss.i can't concentre on anything.i started to have memory problems since i stare directly to the sun with my left eye wide its affect my left side of my memory and my left eye pupil is bigger then my right eyes.i think that i damage my optic nerve.then i had many concussion.and now my memory is so bad that i even don't remember the days that i live and doctor can't explain why

6 months, said...

My 85 year old Mother constantly argues about “what she said or did.” Should I just agree and ignore her vicious comments to me? She has become very loud and arrogant, too.

about 1 year, said...

i am really scared i often forgot things but now i even dont recall my do' s

over 1 year, said...

I am in serious trouble with my brain my doctors do not have ant answers I need some sort of brain scan as it has totally stopped taking information in my he'd is dead any suggestions please ?

over 3 years, said...

When you increasingly hear these kinds of "smoothing over" or "taking over" statements from family or friends, they can be a sign that others are seeing problems they're not willing to address directly. Or-- maybe your friend is just another jerk control freak.

about 4 years, said...

The whole thing is so heartbreaking. My husband is an only child. His mom has been declining with memory loss, etc for about a year. He avoided discussion about placing her in a facility for a long time. Then we were on vacation and called back early because somehow she had bit her finger hard enough to cause infection (it was MRSA) and had to have surgery to remove finger to first knuckle. We REALLY found out how anesthesia and infection affect Alz patients. She became violent and "out of her head" and combative and throwing things at the hospital. Hospital prescribed anti-anxiety meds. Then sent to nursing home but forgot to send med orders. Nursing home sent her to Psych unit at hospital 45 minutes away. They are trying to regulate meds but its not going well. Half the time refuses to take meds, including the antibiotics. None of the local facilities with Alz units will take her with MRSA. It has been a nightmare for my husband and me. She was in first hospital 12 days, nursing home 24 hours and psych ward 8 days now so far. Anybody else gone through this?

over 4 years, said...

Excelente information

over 4 years, said...

This hit home. The only thing that didn't apply to my mother is the one about covering up for her. I promised myself to always be honest with her after we *weren't* honest with my father when he was dying. Now, of course, she thinks I'm out to get her or I'm doing things just to make her miserable but I understand that happens with dementia and the caretaker closest to the person in question. The eye-opening one was the one about phone calls. She completely misunderstood ...several phone conversations lately and blamed it on me "being all excited and talking too fast". Now it makes sense. The disembodied voice is getting hard for her to understand. And the one about making choices? Bingo. She cannot make choices anymore. Even OBVIOUS choices. And we are all so frustrated that she can't make a choice. I understand now. I think. I hope. That doesn't mean I know what to do about it, though.

over 4 years, said...

Just looking at these worry signs I see myself all over the place. #1 my memory problems frighten me? I failed to recognize a fellow who has worked for us for many years—although we speak fairly frequently on the phone and I always recognize his distinctive voice, I don’t see him often and sometimes when I do I’m surprised because I don’t have much of a visual picture of him, but a few months ago he came to the house and we were in the back yard discussing a remodel we were doing and he was looking more and more perplexed and finally after about ten minutes he had to tell me who he was—I had mistaken him for the contractor who was doing the remodel! I’ve known this guy for 20 years and although admittedly he and the contractor are about the same age and of course dress the same way—jeans, shirt, baseball cap, work boots—I always have been able to place him when I’ve seen him before. It was kind of frightening! Also, I often forget where I’m going in the car, always have, but it’s because I get thinking or talking about something & miss my turn. I find this quite annoying but not frightening. #2 I make to do lists & leave reminder notes, but I have done so for years because I don’t like to forget things and it’s easier with reminders. I send more emails but it’s because I’ve discovered that having written records works better when dealing with other people especially on business matters, and it’s hard to reach people on the phone anymore—lots of time is spent playing phone tag. I only drive at night when there is no other choice because anybody knows that there are more drunks on the road at night, and of course it’s harder to see, not just for me, but for anybody. And yes, I ask others for help! As a caregiver, I’ve HAD to ask for help. I’m okay with #3 & #4, nobody else is complaining or covering for me, but #5 yes, I have trouble making choices, but I think that’s because I’m a perfectionist, afraid of making a wrong choice, because I’m under stress all the time with my new role of being “responsible for everything” since my husband’s dementia diagnosis.

over 4 years, said...

Getting days mixed up, or forgetting what day it is. Repeating past events, getting irritated with their spouse over miner things.

over 4 years, said...

Some interesting aspects! Fortunately, it seems these conditions have either passed me by or not yet come on stage. Why? Perhaps if you keep yourself busy & active enough there's not much in the way of "spare" time for such occasions to emerge. The more you try to do the better it is for one in so many ways

over 4 years, said...

The examples of serious memory issues were very clear. Also, the reminder at that we need to use are own normal/usual memory as an indicator was very helpful. I, for instance, have never been good with names and I tend to have poor short term memory that people would usually associate with "a senior moment." It's important that I know this and my kids know this so we won't be overly worried when I am a senior. As far as my mom, I try to compare her current memory skills with what I remember about her from 10, 15, 20 years ago to make sure I don't overreact or miss something important.

over 4 years, said...

I'm 71 years old. Any senior my age who says he hasn't thought about dementia and Alzheimer's may have already lost his mind. In daily life, there are many things I mislay and can'i immediately find, routine things in routine surroundings. It bothers me that I can't immediately think of where I left them. If I'm honest, I have always mislaid routine things in routine surroundings and had a problem finding them when I wanted them. Eventually, they come to hand, and I say, "So that;s where I put you down." And I'm grateful for their recovery. I have to be careful that I don't obsess over the inability to recover them immediately. That obsession is almost worse than mislaying them in the first place. And at my age, it's too easy to let my mind turn to some mental disorder as the cause of my inability to keep track of every object I move or touch. I'm confident that when I have reason to worry about my capacity, I'll have friends to point my deficiencies out to me. I have a game I play: When I was a youngster there was a subdivision where several of my friends lived in my home town. For several years, I couldn't remember the name of that subdivision. None of those friends live there now, and I live 800 miles from where I did then. I have a trick I use to remember things. I concentrate on them as I'm falling asleep. I think of my mind as a large hotel with many rooms. I visualize leaving the information I'm seeking in one of those rooms. I think of the hotel having an enterprising bellboy, who works all night opening doors to rooms I might have visited until he finds the information I left behind. To this point, when I wake up in the morning, I had the information I sought. Marycrest was the name of the subdivision. I haven't forgotten it again, and probably won't. The next time I must remember to tip the bellboy. I think he knows how grateful I am for the information he imparts, but I must be more grateful than I have been. The hotel knows how grateful I am and the Manager certainly knows. Robert C. Visconti

over 4 years, said...

Points #4 and #5 were "new" to me.

over 4 years, said...

The fact that one's inner voice is a powerful aid in sensing your own start of dementia. Also, it's good for me because there is a history of dementia on the maternal side of my background. Now I can pass this article on to my sister.

over 4 years, said...

It is estimated that as many as 80% of people around the world have some form of nuerological challenge: whether it's something small like the inability to stay focused for long periods of time, or something more serious lke always feeling stressed out, anxious, depressed, or not able to sleep, or something much more severe like dementia or alzheimers. Whtever it is, Brain Fuel Plus may be of help! Contact: Hugh should you wish more details. Thanks for listening!

over 4 years, said...

I forgot what i was going to say

over 4 years, said...

My memory was pretty good until I had 6 weeks on a Chemo pump, Oncologist says that's not the cause, but I've had two Neurologists say yes it is.

about 5 years, said...

you left out hearing issues. several studies link untreated hearing loss to significantly increasing the chance of developing dementia and that something as simple as hearing aids could delay or prevent it from developing

about 5 years, said...

How early can dementia kick in? I'm only 27 and my memory was always pretty bad, but lately it's gotten much worse... I totally only send emails because I can track conversations and remember what I was doing. I totally get up to go somewhere, only to get halfway and think, "what am I doing here?" And I ALWAYS make detailed to-do lists (when I say detailed, I mean detailed! otherwise I don't know what I'm talking about on the list). Because I'm so young, my friends more laugh it off. my coworkers think its odd because when they come in to talk to me about something, it often doesn't ring any bells. When they leave, I have a chance to go through my emails and notes, and I finally am up-to-speed. Maybe I'll see my doctor about it...