How Do We Tell The Difference Between Normal And Abnormal Memory Changes?

It’s normal to experience a little memory loss as you age, and it’s also normal to worry about this memory loss. The question is, are you experiencing the first signs of a serious memory problem or are you suffering from normal everyday forgetfulness?

At what point does it turn from simple absentmindedness, something that is common and innocuous, to problematic memory loss, which is neither common nor innocuous?

In this guide, we’ll look at the differences between everyday memory loss and memory loss associated with dementia, helping you spot the differences in yourself and your loved ones.

Common Memory Loss

We all suffer from a little forgetfulness every now and then and this worsens as we age. It’s something you will see in everyone from teenagers to retirees, but unless it’s persistent and coupled with more serious memory loss, it’s generally nothing to worry about.

Mild forgetfulness symptoms include:

  • Missing appointments and monthly payments
  • Struggling to remember what day it is
  • Forgetting which word to use in a sentence
  • Losing items such as a phone or a set of keys

If you have no recollection of ever making those appointments and have no idea what your monthly payments are, you have a problem, but such memory lapses are rare. 

Mild memory loss is just one of the many side effects of aging, but it can also be exacerbated by the following:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor diet leading to nutritional deficiencies
  • Medication side effects
  • Drug and alcohol use

Mild Cognitive Impairment

If your memory lapses are a little more severe than those outlined above and occur frequently, you may have a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but more often than not, it is just another sign of aging.

With MCI, you may lose things often, constantly miss appointments and events, and need reminding of everything from the day and month to certain words and names. 

If you’re a senior suffering from signs of MCI, you should consult with your doctor. They may advise that you make regular appointments so your memory loss can be monitored. Your doctor can also study your diet, sleeping habits, medications, and stress levels to find other potential causes of your symptoms.

Suffering from regular memory lapses like this can be concerning, and if you’re seeing such symptoms in a loved one you may be worried about their mental state. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom. Many times, these symptoms present themselves in people who sleep little, work a lot, and don’t pay attention to their surroundings.

If your loved one is constantly fighting fatigue or has attention issues, they may not process the things you’re telling them. Some people have become so accustomed to living like this that they will respond to you and even engage in full conversation, without actually processing a single word you’re saying. As a result, they can appear forgetful, when in fact they’re just not taking onboard anything that you’re saying.

Some older adults may repeat themselves a lot or tell stories they’ve told numerous times before. While this can be a sign of dementia, it’s also something that people enjoy doing. They have an interesting story, they enjoy telling it, and, while they probably suspect they’ve already told you, that’s not going to stop them from saying it again.

Someone with a very active social life and career is also more likely to ask people the same questions or tell them the same things. They speak with multiple people every day and it can be hard for them to keep track of who knows what. If they tell you the same anecdote or story a day or two after you first heard it, there’s probably nothing to worry about. However, if they repeat themselves minutes or hours later and seem completely oblivious of the repetition, there may be cause for concern. 

When Should You be Worried?

A person with mild forgetfulness and MCI has no issue looking after themselves. They can cook their own meals, plan their days, and with the right encouragement, or plenty of notes, they can remember important appointments and medications. With dementia and aging, however, the patient may struggle with these basic tasks. That is one of the main differentiators.

Dementia is defined as a loss of basic cognitive functioning. Not only will they struggle to remember things, but their thoughts, learning, and reasoning will also be affected. Dementia comes in many forms, including Alzheimer’s disease, and some of the memory problems associated with it include:

  • Making a lot of poor decisions
  • Acting in a way that is very unusual and out of character
  • Losing track of time or having no idea what year it is
  • Experiencing numerous issues with bills and feeling easily overwhelmed
  • Struggling to hold a conversation
  • Getting lost in places they are familiar with
  • Being unable to follow even the simplest of instructions
  • Becoming very confused when arranging events or meetings
  • Asking the same questions or repeating the same stories repeatedly
  • Losing things frequently

If you notice any of these signs in yourself or your loved one, you should consult with a healthcare professional as soon as you can. Dementia is a degenerative disease and there is no cure, but with an early diagnosis you can plan better and get some much needed help.

For anyone dealing with dementia themselves, there are communities, nursing homes, and assisted living facilities to help with basic daily tasks, known as activities of daily living (ADLs). If your loved one has dementia, spotting the signs early will allow you to make the necessary changes to care for them when their condition worsens.