Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you went there to get? Stopped mid-sentence because you forgot what you were saying?
I’ve personally walked around my house looking for my cell phone while I was already holding it in my hand (on more than one occasion).
On occasions like that, I sometimes worry that my mind is slipping. You probably do, too. But most of the time, these incidents are simply a sign of normal age-related memory loss, lack of sleep, or even stress.
When should you worry? Experts say that if you still can’t remember what you were looking for later in the day, or if you seem to forget entire chunks of time, it’s time to see a doctor.
Here are five differences between normal aging and Alzheimer’s that you should be aware of:
- Retrieving Memories
In normal age-related memory loss, you may have trouble retrieving memories from long-term storage. This can lead to problems such as forgetting names or not recalling where you met someone. These issues can usually be overcome with cuing and context.
With Alzheimer’s Disease, there is a problem with retrieving recent memories that simply can’t be overcome. For example, you may have a guest in the morning and then by afternoon you can’t remember who stopped by – even if someone gives you a prompt such as, “It was a friend from grade school.”
- Chronological Memory
If you have dementia, you may have trouble recalling items or events in the order in which they occurred – whether events from your memories or the order of different parts of a sentence. For example, you may know that you went on vacations to Europe and to Hawaii, but you can’t remember which one came first (even though the trips were ten years apart).
Researchers have found that most people can recall recent memories in order (especially with audio prompts) but recall significantly decreases in those suffering from dementia.
- Planning and Problem-Solving
Normal aging typically means that it takes more time to think things through, reactions are slower, and multitasking becomes difficult. On occasion, you may forget to pay a bill or leave a pot on the stove a bit too long.
With dementia, things are a lot more difficult. You may become very confused when planning things out – even something as simple as what to have for breakfast. Concentration is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain and poor judgement is a frequent concern.
As you age, you may have a bit of trouble finding the right word sometimes. You might find yourself needing to concentrate more to keep up with a conversation or becoming distracted if too many people are speaking at once.
For those with dementia, however, finding the right word is a frequent problem and they often refer to objects as “that thing” or people as “that woman/man.” They regularly lose their train of thought and can’t keep up with conversation, and may even have trouble initiating communication with others.
Orientation problems can happen to any person at any age. Most of us have forgotten what day of the week it is or even what year, and we’ve all walked into a room and forgotten why we’re there.
These problems naturally increase as we age, but those with dementia may completely lose their ability to track the passage of time. In addition, dementia patients frequently have no sense of location and can get lost in places that were once very familiar (even their own back yard).
When to See a Doctor
When memory problems start to look like this, it’s time to seek medical help:
- When memory problems don’t improve with cuing and context
- Day-to-day functioning begins to decline with memory
- You have difficulty with familiar tasks, such as operating the microwave
- Bills are often missed or late
- Others tell you that you’re forgetting things, but you are personally unaware that a memory problem exists
Many seniors panic at the first sign of memory problems, terrified that they signify dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s important to understand that minor memory problems are often just a normal sign of aging. If you’re unsure of the severity of changes you’re experiencing, ask a loved one what they observe, or set up an appointment with your physician.