Memory lapses: What’s normal, what’s not

Everyone forgets things occasionally. You might notice it happening more as you age. Could it be a sign of dementia?

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How often do you forget where you put your phone? Walk into the kitchen and forget why you’re there? Have trouble remembering the name of an old work colleague? Or struggle to find a word you’re looking for?

Memory lapses like these are common for people of all ages. “Mild forgetfulness — you forget somebody’s name or where you left something — that’s totally normal,” says Karlene Ball, Ph.D. She’s an experimental psychologist specializing in gerontology and a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “It’s not a sign of anything in particular until it gets worse.”

As you age though, you may experience memory slips more often. You may even start to worry that they’re a sign of something more serious, such as dementia. While forgetfulness may be a normal part of aging, dementia is not.

Here’s what you need to know about how memory loss can be a sign of more serious cognitive impairment.

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What causes memory loss?

Occasional memory loss can happen to anyone, no matter how old you are. Sometimes there is an external cause, related to how you are living your life — and making changes to your life can help:

  • Lack of sleep. When you’re sleep deprived, you may have a harder time focusing and remembering things, according to the Sleep Foundation. (For more on the importance of sleep, watch this Brain Health Academy webinar.)
     
  • Stress, anxiety, and depression. Being anxious about stressful life events can make it harder for you to concentrate and lock in on new information. Depression can also cause memory issues, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
     
  • Medications. Certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs can cause sleepiness or confusion. Antidepressants are common culprits.

But sometimes the cause of memory lapses is inside your head because of how your brain is aging. As you get older, your brain gets “noisier.” It’s like when a radio goes a little off the station and adds a bit of static. When that happens, incoming information from your senses (your eyes and your ears, for example) gets mixed up in the brain noise. This makes it harder for you to pay attention and remember what you see and hear.

“It’s harder to remember something that you don’t see or hear well because it doesn’t get clearly encoded in the first place,” says Ball.

Is it just a memory lapse or something more serious?

Age-related memory loss can be frustrating and scary. But it doesn’t always mean you’re on the road to dementia. Here’s a look at a few common types of memory lapses, and what to watch out for:

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The lapse: I’m terrible at remembering names.

If it’s someone you just met or don’t see often, that’s usually a normal lapse of short-term memory, says Ball. The reason: The information never really imprinted itself in your brain to begin with.

Some scientists think that our brains evolved in ancient times to only know about 100 people who lived in our tribe — so the number of people we meet in the modern world is overwhelming for just about everyone. Not remembering the name of someone you’ve only met once or twice is pretty normal. Try some of these tips for remembering new names and faces:

  • Say the person’s name back to them in conversation.
  • Make their name a talking point; maybe you mention that you have a cousin with the same name, for instance.
  • Associate a distinctive physical feature with their name (in your head!).

If you’re forgetting names of close family members or friends, it could be a sign of a more serious problem. In that case, you’ll want to schedule an appointment with your doctor.

The lapse: I’m constantly forgetting where I put my phone/keys/wallet.

This is often just the result of multi-tasking. Many of us are doing too many things at the same time, which means we weren’t paying enough attention to an automatic activity, like setting down our phone, to record it in memory. You can probably find what you’re looking for by retracing your footsteps, says Ball.

What’s more troubling is if you can’t retrace your footsteps. Maybe you can’t remember when or where you last saw the item. Or you lose things often and cannot find them at all. Another sign that it may be something serious, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine: You misplace things in more and more unusual places.

The lapse: Sometimes I completely blank on a word when I’m trying to tell a story.

Call it a “brain glitch” — and know that it happens to everyone. The word is still in your head, but sometimes your brain just takes a second to find it. Some scientists think that this is brain “noise” again. As you get older, you know more words, and with a bit of noise in your brain, it’s harder for the right word to bubble up to the top to be spoken.

It could be a more serious problem, however, if it happens frequently or if you regularly mix up words, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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But is it something more serious?

If you’re not sure whether your memory loss is a problem, ask yourself: Is this getting in the way of me living my life? Memory lapses can be frustrating. But if they’re not stopping you from doing the things that you love, there’s probably no reason to worry.

Check in with friends and family too. “Most family members can tell when there is a significant change,” says Dr. Ball. If they’re not worried about your memory, you’re probably fine. However, if they bring up concerns that you weren’t even aware of, it might be time to talk to your doctor.

Similarly, it’s a good idea to watch for signs of dementia in your loved ones. One of the most obvious signs of dementia, says Ball, is when someone starts asking the same question over and over again. Especially if they don’t remember asking the question the first time.

“When people stop taking care of themselves in terms of hygiene, like brushing their teeth or eating properly — that’s another symptom,” adds Ball. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, other warning signs of dementia include:

  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Struggling to follow directions
  • Forgetting to pay bills often or having a hard time tracking finances
  • Difficulty doing familiar tasks
  • Losing track of time or not knowing what year or season it is
  • Changes in mood or personality. For example, people with dementia may be more irritable or easily upset.

What you can do

If you’re noticing memory lapses, and you want to take action, you can help out your brain by getting organized. Put these tips to use:

  • Follow a daily routine
  • Put your daily essentials — phone, keys, wallet — in the same place each day
  • Use memory tools such as calendars, phone alarms, and sticky notes
  • Plan out your tasks and make to-do lists

You can also fight those memory lapses where they start by taking care of your brain. Getting better sleep, reducing sources of stress and anxiety, eating brain healthy foods, and exercising can all build brain health and help with memory.

And one of the best ways to take care of your brain? BrainHQ’s science-backed brain training program. BrainHQ offers easy-to-use science-backed brain exercises to help improve your memory, attention and focus. And you may already have free access through your Medicare Advantage plan. Check now.

Additional sources:

Lack of sleep and memory issues: Sleep Foundation
Stress, anxiety, and memory issues: National Institute on Aging
Aging’s effect on brain: National Institute on Aging
Losing things: Johns Hopkins Medicine
Forgetting words: Mayo Clinic
Signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia: The Alzheimer’s Association
Tips for dealing with forgetfulness: National Institute on Aging