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Cognitive Health

Memory and Thinking: What’s Normal and What’s Not?

Many older people worry about their memory and other thinking abilities. For example, they might be concerned about taking longer than before to learn new things, or they might sometimes forget to pay a bill. These changes are usually signs of mild forgetfulness—often a normal part of aging—not serious memory problems.Older woman talking to her doctor about memory problems

Talk with your doctor to determine if memory and other thinking problems are normal or not, and what is causing them.

What's Normal and What's Not?

What's the difference between normal, age-related forgetfulness and a serious memory problem? Serious memory problems make it hard to do everyday things like driving and shopping. Signs may include:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Not being able to follow instructions
  • Becoming confused about time, people, and places

Mild Cognitive Impairment

Some older adults have a condition called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, in which they have more memory or other thinking problems than other people their age. People with MCI can take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer's, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer's disease.

Signs of MCI include:

  • Losing things often
  • Forgetting to go to important events and appointments
  • Having more trouble coming up with desired words than other people of the same age

If you have MCI, visit your doctor every 6 to 12 months to see if you have any changes in memory or thinking skills over time. There may be things you can do to maintain your memory and mental skills. No medications have been approved to treat MCI.

Dementia

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, learning and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with daily life and activities. Memory loss, though common, is not the only sign. A person may also have problems with language skills, visual perception, or paying attention. Some people have personality changes. Dementia is not a normal part of aging.

There are different forms of dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form in people over age 65. The chart below explains some differences between normal signs of aging and Alzheimer's disease.

Differences Between Normal Aging and Alzheimer's Disease
Normal Aging Alzheimer's Disease
Making a bad decision once in a while Making poor judgments and decisions a lot of the time
Missing a monthly payment Problems taking care of monthly bills
Forgetting which day it is and remembering it later Losing track of the date or time of year
Sometimes forgetting which word to use Trouble having a conversation
Losing things from time to time Misplacing things often and being unable to find them

When to Visit the Doctor

If you, a family member, or friend has problems remembering recent events or thinking clearly, talk with a doctor. He or she may suggest a thorough checkup to see what might be causing the symptoms

The annual Medicare wellness visit includes an assessment for cognitive impairment. This visit is covered by Medicare for patients who have had Medicare Part B insurance for at least 1 year.

Memory and other thinking problems have many possible causes, including depression, an infection, or a medication side effect. Sometimes, the problem can be treated, and the thinking problems disappear. Other times, the problem is a brain disorder, such as Alzheimer's disease, which cannot be reversed. Finding the cause of the problems is important to determine the best course of action.

A note about unproven treatments: Some people are tempted by untried or unproven "cures" that claim to make the brain sharper or prevent dementia. Check with your doctor before trying pills, supplements or other products that promise to improve memory or prevent brain disorders. These "treatments" might be unsafe, a waste of money, or both. They might even interfere with other medical treatments. Currently there is no drug or treatment that prevents Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.

See more resources about cognitive health.

For More Information About Memory Loss and Forgetfulness

NIA Alzheimer’s and related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
1-800-438-4380 (toll-free)
adear@nia.nih.gov
www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers
The National Institute on Aging’s ADEAR Center offers information and free print publications about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias for families, caregivers, and health professionals. ADEAR Center staff answer telephone, email, and written requests and make referrals to local and national resources.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
1-800-352-9424 (toll-free)
braininfo@ninds.nih.gov
www.ninds.nih.gov

Alzheimer's Association
1-800-272-3900 (toll-free, 24/7) 
1-866-403-3073 (TTY/toll-free)
info@alz.org
www.alz.org


Updated: July 22, 2017