Perhaps you’ve forgotten the name of a person you met at a party last week. Most of us have. And as we get older, many of us worry that memory lapses like these mean we’re heading straight for serious cognitive decline, perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease.
The following article, reprinted here from Harvard Health Publications-Harvard Medical School, explains the difference between common forgetfulness and dementia. I chose to include this article on my website because of the many clients who, throughout my years in clinical practice, expressed profound concern or worry over what I – almost always – recognized as “normal forgetting.”
Is it forgetfulness or dementia?
Regardless of age, everyone experiences forgetfulness occasionally. When memory lapses occur frequently, many people wonder whether it’s a sign of dementia (impaired memory and other cognitive functions). Perhaps the most feared form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are more important differences between simple forgetfulness and dementia.
In dementia, memory loss is severe enough to interfere with the person’s ability to function socially and at work. Other impairments that are characteristic of dementia include personality changes and impaired abstract thinking, judgment, language, performance of complex physical tasks, or recognition of objects or people.
Normal forgetfulness is neither progressive nor disabling. Such memory problems are likely to surface when you’re under stress, fatigued, ill, distracted, or trying to remember too many details at once.
Memory lapses can also be related to physical problems. For example:
- Some “senior moments,” or memory lapses, have been linked to a reduction in blood flow to the brain caused by high blood pressure.
- People with sleep apnea, who stop breathing many times during the night, score worse on memory and cognitive tests. Their scores rise if they are treated for this problem.
- An underactive thyroid can adversely affect learning, memory, and attention. When thyroid hormone levels return to normal with treatment, performance in these areas improves.
- Women with low iron levels perform significantly worse on cognitive tests. After just a few weeks on supplements, their scores begin to return to normal.
- Much age-related cognitive decline is due to poor vision or hearing, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sleep disturbances, depression, or medication side effects.
A certain increase in forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging, perhaps a result of the gradual loss of brain cells over a lifetime and the reduction in blood flow to the remaining neurons — cells in the body that have the ability to receive and transmit nervous impulses — that occurs between age 30 and age 70. Researchers have found that half to two-thirds of people age 50 or over have some degree of memory loss, however they disagree over how much deterioration is normal. Comparisons of younger and older people’s scores on memory, learning, and intelligence tests suggest that mental sharpness declines only slightly with age. These lower scores may only indicate that older people require more time and effort to learn new information, but that they’ll retain it just as well as younger people.
It’s important to note, though, that memory loss isn’t inevitable. There are many things you can do to preserve or sharpen your memory, including learning memory-enhancing techniques, reducing stress, and improving your organizational skills. Regularly challenging your mind can also help. Try activities such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing chess or taking classes.