When to Worry About Memory Loss

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
August 17, 2015
18 Mar 2015 --- Portrait of senior woman wearing eyeglasses at home --- Image by © Steve Prezant/Corbis

Often it’s just a normal part of aging, but there are ways to know whether it’s something worse. Know what causes memory loss and what to do about it.

Forgetting where you left your keys is likely just a part of normal age-related memory loss. Frustrating, yes, but nothing to be concerned over.

Remembering details like the location of your keys is an executive function. Executive functions amount to your brain’s command and control process. They are integral to managing yourself and your resources to achieve a goal.

Some memory loss is normal

Some decline of working memory is normal with aging. Experts believe significant or fast executive function decline is usually the first sign of serious memory loss or dementia.

Knowing the difference between normal memory loss and more serious cognitive problems is difficult, but simple tests can help you know when to get help.

Common age-related memory loss that’s normal among older adults includes occasionally forgetting where you left things you use all the time and forgetting names of acquaintances. It can also involve blocking one memory for another one, such as calling your daughter by your wife’s name.

You might forget an appointment now and then. Maybe you can’t remember what you just read or the essence of a conversation you just had. Have you opened the refrigerator and forgot what you wanted? That’s normal. You also might be easily distracted or unable to deliver information that’s on the tip of your tongue.

When to worry is when memory loss affects your ability to function. It may include difficulty in performing simple tasks that you always could before, or inability to describe when memory loss caused specific problems. You may begin to get lost in familiar places or find it hard to follow directions.

Your language skills may noticeably decline, such as forgetting words or using them in the wrong context. It could involve difficultly in making choices and displaying poor judgment.

Early signs of Alzheimer's

The Alzheimer’s Association cites 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, such as memory loss that disrupts your daily life or trouble solving problems. These signs can develop at different times and to different degrees, but they all share a serious impact on the ability to function normally day to day.

Somewhere in between normal forgetfulness and serious signs of memory loss is mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Its indications include having problems with memory, language, thinking, and judgment that are more than just age-related changes. But the line between the two can be blurry. One way to distinguish between them is a matter of degree.

It’s normal to forget the names of some people, but not normal to forget the names of close family and still not be able to recall them after a while.

Memory loss testing

Make sure you talk to your doctor about any troublesome signs. Tests and screenings can measure memory loss and identify serious decline in cognitive function that impacts your ability to complete day-to-day tasks. 

More formal screening, and the most comprehensive, involves a neuropsychological assessment. This is a series of cognitive tests on intelligence and memory.

Because, by its nature, serious memory loss may preclude you from assessing yourself objectively, it becomes critical that close family or friends pay attention for separate signs that that together could indicate something more than normal forgetfulness.

Many people with serious memory loss or even dementia are not tested, a study found.

“Early evaluation and identification of people with dementia may help them receive care earlier,” said study author Vikas Kotagal, MD, an associate professor who sees patients at the University of Michigan Health System.

“It can help families make plans for care, help with day-to-day tasks, including observed medication administration, and watch for future problems that can occur. In some instances, these interventions could substantially improve the person’s quality of life.”

Neurologists believe it’s important to catch impairment of executive function as early as possible through testing. The most common screening test for memory loss used by primary care doctors is the Mini-Mental State Examination.

Specialists more often use the Montreal Cognitive Assessment because it’s more sensitive, more detailed, and better at picking up differences between normal memory loss, MCI and dementia.

Not everyone has memory loss

While families should be vigilant when it comes to a senior relative, it’s worth noting that aging and memory loss do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Rush University Medical Center in Chicago has conducted studies that employ annual cognitive testing to track memory and other cognitive functions in people from age 65 to over 100.

Some of those older adults don’t have any memory loss, according to Julie Schneider, MD, a neurologist and neuropathologist at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center. “You certainly can age without having any significant memory loss," she adds.


March 03, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA