Memory Changes: What’s Normal in Aging?
When I prepare to leave home, there are times I can’t find my keys or I get to the bank and realize I haven’t brought my wallet. Can you relate? In middle age, I brush it off to a stressful day, being rushed or I later recall: “Oh yes, my wallet is in my gym bag”. Still, there are times I wonder “Jeez, what’s wrong with me?!” In the back of my mind I’m aware that my paternal grandmother had dementia, as did her father and I’ve noticed my own father’s changes in memory. Even though I know Familial Alzheimer’s Disease is rare and only accounts for 2-3% of all Alzheimer’s cases, I find myself lingering in a moment of worry.
Despite increasing age being the strongest risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, it doesn’t mean it’s inevitable. According to the latest government statistics, 7.1% of Canadians over the age of 65 are living with dementia. So, when is forgetfulness a problem? Similar to how our body changes as we age, it’s normal for certain parts of the brain to change as well. Normal memory changes may result in making mistakes once in a while; you might forget to pay a bill this month or forget today’s date or miss your dentist appointment. You may get frustrated at yourself for not recalling a word or someone’s name and you may misplace things from time to time. These are all completely normal changes.
The important question is: Are problems with memory negatively impacting every day life? If the answer is yes, it’s time to make an appointment with a doctor. Dementia symptoms could be the result of temporary or reversible conditions that needs to be treated as soon as possible, such as:
An infection, medication side effects, thyroid, kidney or liver disorders, alcohol consumption, nutrient deficiencies or blood clots.
A concussion. Simply falling and landing on your knees in older age can result in a mild brain injury that requires treatment to recover.
Hearing loss. It’s normal for hearing to diminish as we age and because it happens so gradually, most people don’t notice when it begins or the extent of the damage.
Depression, including stress and anxiety, can increase forgetfulness and be mistaken for dementia.
Your health care professional should address any underlying and potentially reversible causes of memory loss before non-reversible forms of dementia are even considered. If you find it difficult to follow or have a conversation, misplace things often and cannot find them later, lose track of the month or year, or have frequent problems taking care of your monthly bills, these are signs that warrant a medical consultation.
Being concerned about your memory is normal and it’s ok to notice changes. Increased forgetfulness, requiring more time to learn new things or finding it challenging to recall information, are expected changes as we age. If you’ve struggled to come up with a word that was on the tip of your tongue or if you’re taking longer to get your words out during a conversation, rest assured that alone is not a sign of dementia.
When my memory fails me, I find it frustrating or embarrassing; and ironically, I often remember far too well the moments I’d like to forget! Both good and bad, our memories hold a lot of meaning and importance in our lives. By reading this, it demonstrates your interest and capacity to continue learning, which is already a positive step in memory care.
Alaina King, M.Sc.
Alaina has a MSc in Aging & Health and is the owner of Grey Matters Tx. A registered professional Recreation Therapist and Certified Dementia Practitioner, Alaina has been working with older adults with dementia since 1998. In addition to Recreation Therapy, Alaina has worked in Community Patient Care Coordination and as a Staff Educator and Health & Safety Auditor in Long Term Care.
Medical Disclaimer: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice, or delay in seeking it, because of something you have read on this post.
Public Health Agency of Canada. (2017). Dementia in Canada, Including Alzheimer’s Disease. Minister of Health, Pub: 170098; ISBN 978-0-660-08718-4.