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Normal Memory Loss vs. Memory Problems: How to Tell the Difference

Brain blips happen to all of us, but sometimes they can signal something more concerning

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Your keys are missing — again. Last time you lost them, they showed up in your coat pocket. (Of course.) But sometimes they show up on a random table in your home. Once, they were still in the door. Oof.

Losing your keys or having similar brain blips — such as forgetting what you walked into a room for, why you opened your fridge or where you placed your glasses — may happen more often as you age. One in nine adults 45 and older say they experienced more memory problems or confusion over the previous year, according to 2015-2017 data analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Memory short circuits can make you question whether what you’re experiencing is something more serious, such as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a term that describes worsening confusion and memory loss that in some cases can lead to dementia.

Although we can’t tell you definitively if cognitive problems are the culprit — or if you’re in the clear — there are symptoms that experts say can clue you in on what’s normal and what may be cause for concern.

Compare your experiences with these all-too-common scenarios for advice on what to do next.

Telling a story to a friend, you blank on the name of a shared acquaintance.

This is probably normal. There are expected brain changes that happen as you add candles to your cake. “Processing speed can slow down as we age. The speed and ability to retrieve info from your memory may become a bit slower,” says Sarah Kremen, M.D., director of the Neurobehavior Program at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.

Most likely, that info will come back to you — long after you needed it. (Of course, her name is Beth!) Focusing on one thing at a time, rather than multitasking or looking at your phone when you shouldn’t be, can help clear background clutter to encode information into your brain, Kremen says.

You’ve always been pretty even-keeled, but your sister has noticed your mood swings lately.

Consider visiting your doctor. “Any new change in mood over the age of 50 should be considered the brain’s way of sending out warning signals,” says Rhonna Shatz, D.O., adjunct associate professor and an endowed chair in research and education in Alzheimer’s disease at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

“The brain can let you know that it’s not working the way it should be with changes in mood or personality,” she says. If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, irritability or lack of initiative and motivation for the first time, or you are going through a relapse of depression or anxiety (that had stabilized), see your doctor.

On the other side of the coin, depression and anxiety also cause cognitive symptoms, which is why it’s important to seek professional help to understand exactly what’s going on.


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You and your spouse are arguing about a conversation that you don’t remember.

How often is this happening? And how recently did you two talk about this?

It’s normal to forget smaller elements of a conversation you had weeks or months ago, and once someone reminds you of the details, it should come back to you, says James Mastrianni, M.D., professor of neurology and codirector at the Center for Comprehensive Care and Research on Memory Disorders at UChicago Medicine. Outside factors, such as stress, can stymie your brain’s ability to pluck info from your memory bank, according to research in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

What’s concerning is if you don’t remember having the conversation at all, Mastrianni says. Another clue is if you’re having heated arguments with family members about whether certain conversations did or did not happen.

Frustrated loved ones may say you told the same story within a 10-minute span. Repetition or forgetfulness of conversations should be evaluated by a doctor.

You forgot where you placed your keys. (Though somedays it’s your phone.)

Often, this isn’t concerning. “It’s one of the most common things we see as we age, and it mainly occurs because we don’t pay attention to where we place them,” Mastrianni says.

Putting items down in the same place, such as a catchall, every day will help. Another tip, he says: When you drop your keys, stare at them for two seconds and notice what’s around them to make sure you record their whereabouts in your memory.

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There may be a cognitive problem at play if you spend your day tearing apart your house looking for a missing item or you regularly have to replace important items (including car keys) that cannot be found. Worried family members may report that they were accused of moving things or, worse, stealing them.

You wanted a knife, but you called it a fork instead.

Cognitive issues can appear as language use problems. “There may be a difficulty in getting thoughts together or stringing words into a coherent thought,” Mastrianni says. You may replace words with related — but not correct — words. You asked for the knife, but you meant a fork. Or you’ve lost the meaning of certain words, such as no longer knowing what a zebra is. “These are clearly signs of a dementia process,” he says.

You worked as an accountant, but calculating the tip on a restaurant bill has become a challenge.

During earlier stages of cognitive impairment, you may feel as if things consistently require more time and effort to complete, says Joel Salinas, M.D., clinical assistant professor of neurology and an expert on neurodegenerative diseases, dementia and Alzheimer’s at NYU Langone Health.

“Context, as well as your specific background, matters,” he says. This is most telling if something that had been easy for you becomes difficult. For example, you were a trained accountant but struggle with calculating a tip. Or you feel as if you lost your ability to do a task that was part of your day-to-day living, such as paying bills

Whom to see if you’re worried about your memory

If you notice concerning signs, don’t put off a call or a visit to the doctor. “The earlier you can address your concerns, the more likely you can participate in your care and preserve your independence,” Salinas says.

Your primary care physician is a good place to start. Several medical conditions can cause memory loss, some of which are reversible, so your doctor will want to rule those out first.

If they have concerns after an evaluation, you may be referred to a specialist, such as a neurologist, geropsychologist or a geriatrician for a more thorough workup. Just know: Wait times with these specialists can be long — some estimates say it takes about a month to score an appointment with a neurologist as a new patient.

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