Worried About Your Memory? 5 Signs It's Not Serious

How to tell when memory trouble is "normal" (and probably not a disorder like Alzheimer's)
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It's natural to feel a little uneasy when you forget something, knowing that Alzheimer's disease now afflicts 5.3 million Americans, many still in their 40s and 50s. It's scary, sure. But many bouts of memory loss are simply the result of much more benign situations.

How can you tell the difference? The following five situations point toward normal, age-related memory loss. The best rule of thumb: "If you're concerned, see a specialist," says psychiatrist Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of several books about memory and cognition, including The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head. An evaluation can rule out certain potential causes and often identify reversible ones. (See also Worried About Memory Loss? 5 Signs It's Serious.)

It's probably not serious if: Lapses don't interfere with everyday life.

Everybody forgets stuff. The movie title on the tip of your tongue. The name of the dad on the soccer field. The occasional appointment or lunch date. What the heck you just came in the room to get.

Slowed recall of information from time to time is normal, caused by the naturally aging brain and other lifestyle factors (like trying to cram too many tasks into one day). What's not normal: When memory impairment interferes with your ability to get through the day. Everyday activities tend to rely on many rote steps and require you to remember basic sequences -- which the healthy brain isn't apt to forget.

So it's a reassuring sign if, despite occasional lapses, you can still work, prepare meals, dress yourself, manage your checkbook, pursue hobbies, and read 900-page novels or pursue your other usual hobbies as well as ever without needing help.

It's probably not serious if: You see an improvement after "brain training."

Dozens of "brain fitness" products now exist, promising to strengthen our synapses and buffer our brainpower. Do they work? So far, there's no evidence that brain games or cognitive training can reverse the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's-related decline, according to a National Institutes of Health panel convened in 2010. But the jury is still out on whether there's a protective effect on healthy brains.

"Our brains naturally compensate for memory loss, and we can help our brains compensate more by learning memory techniques and cognitive techniques," psychiatrist Gary Small says. "If you do some of these techniques and see an improvement, that's a good sign."

Dementia is not so much a problem of retrieving old memories as it is an inability to form new ones. If you can still learn new things, you're forming new memories.

Among the available brain-strengtheners: Software you run on your home computer, classes offered by memory centers, cognitive therapy directed by trained therapists, and do-it-yourself books offering brain teasers and other games.

It's probably not serious if: You've just started a new medication.

It's always a good idea to consider what else is going on in your life before you get too worried about a fuzzy brain. Drug side effects happen to be one of the more common, unexpected causes of memory trouble.

In fact, among older adults, who are often taking multiple prescriptions and then have an increased risk of dangerous interactions, the problem is so common that some geriatricians believe that any new symptom should be considered a medication side effect until proven otherwise.

Medications known to cause short-term memory loss include antianxiety drugs and sedatives (Xanax, Valium, Ambien), heartburn drugs (Tagamet, Pepcid), incontinence drugs (Detrol or Ditropan), cholesterol drugs (Lipitor) and some statins for high cholesterol, and antidepressants. A complete list numbers in the high dozens; always check with your doctor or pharmacist, especially if you've recently started a new prescription or have had the dosage changed.

It's probably not serious if: Nobody else seems to notice anything's amiss.

It's true that people might be noticing you're slipping but not saying anything to protect your feelings. But usually, there's a lot of family friction around memory loss that predates a diagnosis, says University of Wisconsin geriatric psychiatrist Ken Robbins. You find yourself in arguments over who neglected to do something, missed appointments, forgotten messages, or lost drivers. Family members may criticize or complain about mistakes before there's a diagnosis of something serious like dementia.

Eventually, this adds up to relatives often making a dementia diagnosis informally themselves, and being right. 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. They notice symptoms like repetitive stories or questions, social apathy, and changes in the person's ability to independently conduct everyday life (work, cooking, money management).

But if you're all still just teasing and joking over occasional slips -- think of Nora Ephron titling her new book I Remember Nothing -- odds are good nobody's alarmed yet.

It's probably not serious if: You're forgetful when stressed, sleep deprived, or multitasking.

Before you blame the worker (you), consider the workload. A stressed brain is not the same as a demented one.

Doing two or more things at once taxes the brain. No surprise there. Neuroimaging studies have shown that you're not really attending to several things at once. You're switching your attention from one to another, which means when you're attending to one thing, you're not really attending to the others in bursts lasting milliseconds. Result: short-term memory loss.

The challenge is especially hard if you're using the same part of the brain -- for example, using language centers to talk on the phone, read onscreen, and type at the same time.

Insufficient sleep is another common brain stressor, because that's when the brain processes and organizes memories for later retrieval. General stress, too, affects memory when increased cortisol production temporarily interferes with normal brain cell communication.

People with early dementia, on the other hand, tend to forget regardless of whether they're sleeping well or poorly, busy or slow at work, stressed or unstressed.

Learn 5 signs of memory trouble that could be serious.


4 months ago, said...

This is such a great article! Thank you


12 months ago, said...

What about the anti-depressant, Imipramine. I've been on it for 30 years even though I've tried several times to get off it. I've heard that it can also affect memory. I'm 73 and so far, so good. My family on my father's side all had Alzheimer's. I'm wondering if that's 100% that I'll get it.


12 months ago, said...

Xanex is a benzodiapaphene, a class of drugs which has been positively correlated over 90% to dementia and cognitive impairment since the early 1990's, yet doctors are still prescribing it. Research on the subject can be easily found on 'PubMed'. I'm only 39 and believe I've had permanent memory loss from the medication. It's both embarrassing and frightening -- I'll run into people and not remember entire conversations. Additionally, it's hard for others to notice the subtlety, so at this point I don't know if it's as severe as I feel it is. I'm in graduate school earning straight 'A's but have problems remembering things that I haven't 'forced' into memory, outside of reading material. I'm fearful that I've had permanent memory loss. Please remove 'Xanax' from your article. The effects are not temporary, as research has shown.


about 2 years ago, said...

Quite interesting but my wife has been medically diagnosed with dementia. I had noted the lead up causes myself. She still does not accept the diagnosis, over a year later, and still blames me for "taking her driving licence" away when it was a medical, and law condition. Sadly it is all downhill from here.


about 2 years ago, said...

more examples and details .


over 2 years ago, said...

Thanks for this list. In the age of WebMD it can be all to get worked up about "symptoms." It is nice to have a reminder that sometimes we are just tired and forgetful.


almost 3 years ago, said...

Hello Ed2932, Perhaps this article: http://www.caring.com/articles/early-signs-of-dementia-checklist is what you are looking for. If I can be of further assistance, please let me know.


almost 3 years ago, said...

Missed the address for sending for forms to take Alzheimer test. It was something like www.sage,osu.com,please send me correct adress. thanks.


almost 3 years ago, said...

at 81 this is a prime concern of mine I work part time 20hrs. wk musician for a church more than 60yrs. and continue to be active not much exercise although? drive to work and church; this condition scares me? seeing some one in Feb.14 about condition?


about 3 years ago, said...

A very timely reminder as my wife has been diagnosed with early stage dementia, which she does not accept.


over 3 years ago, said...

Damn! I already forgot what was that whole noise about!


over 3 years ago, said...

How do "mini strokes" factor into memory loss?


over 3 years ago, said...

I'm forgetting simple words at times, or peoples names when I see them....I still work in Television, do interviews, for anything happening in our valley, City; State; School; Churches; personal health....and once in the while, I really have to groop for a word, etc....Just celebrated my 84th birthday yesterday, besides having the local TV Station, I also work at the local Mortuary part time, am a very independent person, live alone with my lil' Boston Terrier....Was told not to worry - that it's just I do SO Much, at times my mind just stops....to catch it's breath!!!! Am a bit concerned....


over 3 years ago, said...

still puzzling is why people who held good jobs,repaired cars,did their own taxes-then go in to dementia for what reason? can a 50lb weight loss in 6 months to aperson of normal body weight-trigger dementia?how about a person who drinks 4 /5 cans of beer daily?


almost 4 years ago, said...

i FORGOT.....ah yes.....The commonsense-ness of it all.


almost 4 years ago, said...

Fewer ads so I could see more text on the first page, not have to click on "next" so often


about 4 years ago, said...

Do studying and playing difficult music, taking a college-level class, or organizing and writing books help stimulate the brain and avoid loss of mental function caused by ischemic disease?


about 4 years ago, said...

why did you show all 5 as white women?


over 4 years ago, said...

Very helpful article! Thank you!


over 4 years ago, said...

I am 63, and I have been very worried, for the past year, about my memory lapses; but this article has really helped, especially the final page: I have been very stressed, and am lucky to get more than 2 hours of sleep at night. And other odd things, like forgetting where I was, which happened more than 10 years ago ( when I used to commute to work) as I was on the way home after work, but not since, I would make jokes about, but still watch for recurrences. And I'm always finding things that I laid in strange places; but when I stop to think about it, even though I can't actually remember putting them there, I can remember that I was in a hurry or preoccupied at the time. The one thing that really bothers me, though, and I really wish that you had covered this instance in your article, is that I often remember only the meanings of words, rather than the words themselves, and I find myself struggling to explain to people exactly what I mean, while they stand there looking puzzled or trying to help me come up with a word. That is very embarrassing for me, and I find myself participating less and less in conversations. Thank you for a very enlightening article.


over 4 years ago, said...

thank you evry much , I am taken three of the drug's you mention . In am not active at all I think am going to start doing something ASAP in am just maken my self sick worrying about it


over 4 years ago, said...

As I get older [78] and have to care for my wife who has alzheimers get concerned about my own lapses in memory which occur occasionally and don't last long. This article reassured me that what I am experiencing is pretty normal and not something to worry about which is very good because I've got enough to worry about.


over 4 years ago, said...

Wow. I'm heavy duty into major strees.... increasing caretaking of father of my children... Vigilant Gram to stressed out (with reason, details too dreary) college grandaughter also living with me... also I still teach (!! love it) and attempt volunteer work (less) and spoil a CAT. Also, I have advanced osteoperosis and use a walker. This doesn't stop me but no WONDER I am making lists of lists. No one seems to notice as I wear bright colors, love laughing and travel fast in my walker. Helpful news. I'd better cut down on.... on.... SOMETHING!


over 4 years ago, said...

I have been forgetting a few little things lately and it's really been bothering me. The article reassured me, since I am on new medications (and I've had problems sleeping.because of these new medications). Now I have one less worry!


over 4 years ago, said...

"Great article thanks. But I have take viagra to read "Playboy" magazine. Is that a sign of ALZ genitalia!


over 4 years ago, said...

Yes..very much.. I am a victim of those very symptoms of forgetfulness! But I can carry on with my 84 yr old life fine. I drive, I read...I write and do the laundry too. Thanks a lot...You helped me get rid of my scary momments of potential Althiemers.


over 4 years ago, said...

between my wife and I , we have taken almost all of the drugs you mentioned. I have been constantly concerned by my memory loss, especially with close friends. I don't always forget but sometimes I have to hesitate to recall their names. By the way I have had a stroke about 6 years ago but have recovered about 98%.