Memory Problems, Forgetfulness, and Aging
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Older adults may worry about their memory and other thinking abilities, such as taking longer to learn something new. These changes are usually signs of mild forgetfulness — or age-related forgetfulness — and are often a normal part of aging.
Memory changes with age
As people grow older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As a result, some people notice that they don’t remember information as well as they once did and aren’t able to recall it as quickly. They may also occasionally misplace things or forget to pay a bill. These usually are signs of mild forgetfulness, not a serious memory problem.
It’s normal to forget things once in a while at any age, but serious memory problems make it hard to do everyday things such as driving, using the phone, and finding the way home.
Signs that it might be time to talk with a doctor include:
- Asking the same questions over and over again
- Getting lost in places you used to know well
- Having trouble following recipes or directions
- Becoming more confused about time, people, and places
- Not taking care of yourself — eating poorly, not bathing, or behaving unsafely
Talk with a doctor if you are experiencing noticeable changes in your memory. A doctor can perform tests and assessments to help determine the source of memory problems. Your health care provider may also recommend that you see a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in treating diseases of the brain and nervous system.
You may also wish to talk with your doctor about opportunities to participate in research on cognitive health and aging.
Mild cognitive impairment
Some older adults have a condition called mild cognitive impairment — MCI — meaning they have more memory or thinking problems than other people their age. People with MCI can usually take care of themselves and are able to carry out their day-to-day tasks. MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s.
If you’re experiencing changes in your memory or think you may have MCI, talk with your doctor. Learn more about the symptoms of MCI.
Dementia versus age-related forgetfulness
Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. However, dementia is not a normal part of aging. Dementia includes the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, learning, and reasoning — and behavioral abilities to the extent that it interferes with a person’s quality of life and activities. Memory loss, though common, is not the only sign of dementia. People with dementia may also have problems with language skills, visual perception, or paying attention. Some people experience personality changes.
There are different types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia, and symptoms may vary from person to person. The chart below compares some differences between normal aging and the signs of dementia.
|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|
What else can affect memory?
It’s possible for memory problems to stem from factors unrelated to dementia or normal aging. For example, medical conditions, such as depression or blood clots, can cause memory problems. These problems usually go away once the condition is successfully treated.
Factors that may cause memory problems include:
- Head injury, such as a concussion
- Blood clots, tumors, or infections in the brain
- Thyroid, kidney, or liver problems
- Medication side effects
- Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety
- Alcohol or drug misuse
- Sleep problems
- Low levels of important nutrients, such as vitamin B12
- Not eating enough healthy foods
Major, traumatic, or stressful life events can also cause memory problems. For example, someone who has recently retired or who is coping with the death of a spouse may feel sad, lonely, worried, or bored. Stress and negative emotions are powerful. Trying to deal with such life changes and emotions leaves some people confused or forgetful.
These memory problems from negative emotions are usually temporary and will improve as the stress and emotions fade. Being active, socially engaged, and experiencing a sense of accomplishment by learning new skills can help with both memory and improving mood. If memory problems persist after a few weeks, talk with your doctor as this may be a sign of something more serious.
Finding the cause of memory problems is important for determining the best course of action. Once the cause is diagnosed, you and your doctor can determine the best treatment plan. People with memory problems should make a follow-up appointment to check their memory every six to 12 months.
You may also be interested in
- Downloading or ordering a free pamphlet on forgetfulness
- Learning more about how the aging brain affects thinking
- Finding ways older adults can help take care of their cognitive health
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For more information about memory and aging
NIA Alzheimer’s and related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
The NIA ADEAR Center offers information and free print publications about Alzheimer’s 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.
Explore the Alzheimers.gov website for information and resources on Alzheimer’s and related dementias from across the federal government.
McKnight Brain Research Foundation
This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date.
November 22, 2023