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Forgetfulness is common and happens to most people, including memory champions. Distraction, fatigue, depression, anxiety, absentmindedness, and many other factors may contribute. Luckily, most memory problems are simply “brain blips”: temporary episodes of forgetfulness that are not a harbinger of Alzheimer’s or another memory disorder.

Common brain blips include misplacing frequently used objects, such as keys or glasses, forgetting why we walked into a room, and periodic difficulty remembering a word we want to say. Brain blips are frequently linked to situational factors and normal age-related changes.

For most people, mental flexibility starts to become a bit less efficient with each passing decade from our late 20s onward, and memory starts to decline in our late 30s, so it is common to notice more memory problems as we age. However, because the rate of Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders also increases with age, and because memory impacts nearly every aspect of daily life, it is important to distinguish between normal age-related memory changes and signs of a memory disorder. This focus has surged in recent years as America’s population of older adults has reached historically high levels.

Signs of memory change

So how do we begin to tease apart the signs of normal-versus-abnormal memory changes when memory itself can be impacted by dozens of different variables? Here are three signs that may signal a potential memory problem:

1. Current memory is notably weaker than previous levels, as evidenced by increasing forgetfulness for well-known, frequently used information.

This might include forgetting the route to the grocery store, a well-known recipe, a familiar procedure at work, the name of a well-known friend, or the names of common, well-known objects. Such forgetting of familiar, frequently used information goes well beyond related “brain blips” that might include forgetting the names of acquaintances you haven’t seen in years, forgetting how to navigate to a location you’ve only been to a couple of times, forgetting to run an errand, or “forgetting” information you never fully learned.

2. Increased or new forgetfulness that can’t be explained.

Increasing forgetfulness for recent events (e.g., conversations, activities, and appointments) and/or new difficulty managing daily tasks due to memory problems (e.g., forgetting whether you have taken medication or paid the bills) may be problematic. This is especially the case if it does NOT appear to be explained by a known medical, emotional, or situational issue (e.g., some people experience temporary memory problems due to stress, lack of sleep, medication side effects, thyroid issues, or other medical problems, and memory bounces back after the underlying issue is corrected).

3. Others have noticed that memory is worsening.

It is not uncommon for someone with a memory problem to not be fully aware of it, because they may not remember their own forgetfulness. Often, those we spend the most time with are the first to notice a memory problem and can comment on whether it has worsened over time.

Notice that the signs above have a few commonalities: Forgetfulness may be a potential problem if it:

  • Reflects a notable decline from previous levels
  • Does not improve when potential contributing factors are addressed (and often worsens over time)
  • Involves forgetfulness for well-known information
  • Impairs performance of well-known tasks
  • Is noticeable to others
memory problem prevention
Often, those we spend the most time with are the first to notice a memory problem and can comment on whether it has worsened over time. – STOCK IMAGE

Next steps

If you or a loved one have any or all of the warning signs noted above, it does not mean there is definitely a memory disorder present (especially because memory can be impacted by dozens of factors). Rather, it suggests that the following steps may provide some help:

1. Discuss memory concerns with a healthcare provider.

This may lead to a “work-up” to investigate possible contributing factors, which may include (a) laboratory tests to measure thyroid, vitamin, and other metabolic levels; (b) analysis of possible medication side effects; (c) brief memory screening (which provides a basic measure of thinking skills, though usually not enough detail to make a diagnosis or detect subtle memory problems); (d) a neuropsychological evaluation which statistically analyzes memory, attention, visual functioning, reasoning, strategy formation, and other skills (i.e., the “software” of the brain) to determine if memory problems are present and how best to treat them; and (e) possible neuroimaging (e.g., head CT or brain MRI) to evaluate the “hardware” of the brain.

2. Exercise.

Multiple studies have shown that the most powerful treatment for mild memory problems is cardiovascular exercise, which can slow the rate of memory loss and even improve memory. Exercise also increases the density of brain tissue in the hippocampus (a core memory processing area) and the frontal lobes. Given that Alzheimer’s-related brain changes can start up to 40 years prior to diagnosis, and given there is no treatment to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s, it is most advantageous to exercise proactively. However, it is never too late to begin. Exercise can also slow the rate of memory loss for those who already have Alzheimer’s.

Whether or not forgetfulness is a “brain blip” or a sign of a potential memory problem, it is never too late to start building better brain health.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

Chinese Proverb

About Michelle Braun, Ph.D. ABPP(CN)

Michelle Braun, Ph.D., ABPP(CN), is a Board-certified Clinical Neuropsychologist with Ascension Medical Group. She sees patients at Ascension All Saints Hospital – Medical Office Buildings A & B – Spring Street Campus, located at 3805 B Spring Street, Suite 320, in Racine. For appointments call 262-687-8322.

[This article was adapted from a blog published by Dr. Braun on Psychology Today called High-Octane Brain]

Copyright: Michelle Braun, PhD, ABPP(CN), Board-certified Clinical Neuropsychologist – Ascension

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