Forgetfulness and Aging: What’s Normal and What Isn’t?
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The CDC estimates that around 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia. The vast majority (5.6 million) of these people are aged 65 and older, so it’s only natural to think more about dementia and memory as we age.
But there is a difference between the memory problems associated with aging and those that are signs of Alzheimer’s. It’s important to understand these and to seek a diagnosis from your doctor as early as possible.
Let’s take a closer look at forgetfulness associated with aging and the signs of dementia.
Age-Related Memory Problems
Anyone at any age can experience forgetfulness from time to time. We’ve all lost our car keys or forgotten a meeting at some point. As we get older, it is natural for us to become more forgetful than we were in the past.
There are seven memory problems that Harvard Medical School has identified as being a normal part of life and aging. They are not normally an indication that a person is developing Alzheimer’s disease.
This refers to forgetting events or facts. We’re most likely to forget things right after we learn them and this is not necessarily a sign of a memory issue. It may be our brains just filter out some memories to make way for newer ones that are more important.
Have you promised to call someone back and then completely forgotten to do it? Or walked into a room and have no idea why you’re there? This is absentmindedness and it happens to people of all ages.
It usually happens when we’re not really paying attention and we may experience this more often as we age.
Blocking refers to memories that just won’t come to mind. You know they’re in there – they’re on the tip of your tongue. But no matter how hard you try, they will not come.
Often your brain will present you with a similar memory – but not the right one. Most of the time the memories come back, but as we get older this declines. This is why it’s hard for some older people to recall the names of people as quickly as they used to.
Misattribution and Suggestibility
Misattribution causes us to remember part of a story but get other parts wrong. We may be convinced that events happened at a different time or in a different place. You may also forget that you’ve heard or read something and pass it off as an original thought.
We’ve probably all experienced this, but it becomes more common the older we get. It becomes particularly common to mix up details of events that happened a long time ago.
Suggestibility causes our brains to add information we learn later to existing memories. We can become convinced that we’re having a genuine memory even though we didn’t experience it ourselves.
Bias and Persistence
No one’s memory is perfect and we all put our own slant on things based on our experiences. This is called bias and it is not known if this becomes more pronounced as we age.
Persistence causes us to remember things that we’d rather forget. Traumatic memories may keep coming back to us.
We normally associate memory problems with forgetting things. In this case, it’s remembering things that can be very distressing.
All of the above are common memory issues and aging causes some to become more pronounced. But what memory problems could signal the start of Alzheimer’s disease?
Signs of Alzheimer’s
The normal forgetfulness we associate with aging tends to come and go. It’s more frequent than when we were younger, but it’s not persistent. But with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, memory loss is progressive.
One of the signs of dementia is a persistent difficulty in remembering recently acquired information. This could be about plans and upcoming events. The person may forget important dates and appointments and need to write everything down to help them remember things.
They may also become increasingly reliant on family members to help them up with their daily schedule. They may also put things in unusual places or completely forget where they have left things.
Difficulty With Everyday Tasks
You may notice that a loved one is struggling with everyday tasks. This could include following recipes or performing simple calculations.
They may find it increasingly difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. Sometimes they may not be able to remember how to drive to a familiar location.
In time, they may find it more challenging to work or engage in social activities. This may cause them to isolate themselves or not keep up with sports teams as they did in the past.
Time and Place Confusion
Occasionally, an older person may need a reminder about the day of the week. But someone with Alzheimer’s may become very confused about the day, month, or season. They may also become confused about where they are and how they got there.
As the disease progresses, many people become depressed, confused, or suspicious. They may accuse friends or family members of doing something, such as stealing from them. They may become increasingly anxious, especially when they’re out of their comfort zone.
The Importance of a Diagnosis
If you notice that a loved one is having memory difficulties, it’s important to encourage them to see a doctor as soon as possible.
In many cases, it will not be dementia. But it’s not possible to make a diagnosis based on the signs above.
Doctors are able to provide a diagnosis. They can suggest treatments that can help people maintain their independence for longer.
Schedule an Appointment
If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s natural to be concerned. Alzheimer’s is an increasingly common condition but an early diagnosis can help. Although it’s progressive, treatment can help to keep people active and independent for as long as possible.
At Brown & Toland, you can find doctors based on specialty, location, and whether they accept your insurance plan. Call us today at 800.225.5637 or find a doctor online.
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