As we age, we may start to notice physical changes in our bodies and in our memory. Whether it be that we can’t stretch the same way or maybe we have more grey hairs than usual. Just as these changes are bound to happen, changes in our memory are inevitable as well.

For some people, there is a different level of worry when it comes to experiencing forgetfulness because there’s an assumption that it could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. However, there are a variety of factors in our lives that can cause forgetfulness or mild cognitive decline without necessarily indicating early signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

What’s “Normal” Memory Loss?

Debra Cherry, PhD, executive vice president of Alzheimer’s Los Angeles, shared with us that as we age, our brains do experience changes. If our brain is not well maintained or if we have multiple chronic conditions, these damages to the brain can be more severe. The most amount of change can be seen in the frontal and prefrontal cortex areas of the brain, that help with planning and executive function.

According to Dr. Cherry, our memory peaks when we are in our 20s, but after our 40s, there is a modest and gradual decline, mostly at an unnoticeable level. One of the most common symptoms of this inevitable change may be slower processing time such as taking more time to think.

There are certain signs to look out for when memory loss begins to be of greater concern. She shared, “If you were looking at these normal changes and were comparing them to a dementia, like Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia, losses due to dementia gets so severe that they interfere with our functions of daily living.” This includes tasks such as missing deadlines for your bills or having difficulties with medication management. Experiencing these mental changes that impact daily function or impact quality of life may be a sign to consider checking in with a doctor.

Memory Loss That Isn’t Necessarily Dementia

Memory loss, especially if it starts suddenly, could be temporary and caused by reasons other than dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Some factors that may contribute to temporary memory loss include, but are not limited to:

  • Grief
  • Depression
  • Alcohol abuse
  • New medical conditions
  • Medication interactions
  • Nutritional or vitamin deficiencies
  • Social isolation

Margaret Shimada, LCSW, director of service programs at Little Tokyo Service Center, has interacted with many individuals who have experienced different stages of forgetfulness in the community and in her personal life.

Margaret said that she has seen in cases of grief when someone loses a loved one, they become more forgetful, scattered, and less focused. Once they were able to grieve or work through their depression with therapy, support, or medication, the fog lifted and they became more alert. She shared, “The individual may think it’s irreversible, but in some cases, it may be situational.”

The Next Steps

Keeping in mind the different factors that affect memory, what are next steps we can take to think about our memory? The first step to take, regardless of whether you are experiencing memory loss or not, is to establish a baseline, or what is normal for your memory. This step is crucial in catching any changes we may experience in the future.

Most importantly, having an honest conversation with your physician about your experience is critical. Dr. Cherry recommends that if you have concerns, you should let your physician know how your current function differs from your baseline by telling them, “This is my baseline, this is what has been happening, and this is how it is interfering with my ability to live my life.” During one short physician visit, it might be difficult for your doctor to notice a substantial change. If you feel like your memory and thinking differ from your baseline, it may be beneficial to ask your physician for a referral to a specialist in memory disorders, usually a neurologist or a geriatrician.

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Normalizing a Judgment free, Honest Conversation

While forgetfulness and memory loss are inevitable as we age, what we do when we begin to experience these changes or even before that point is crucial in keeping ourselves healthy. Both shared that other than maintaining our brain health, normalizing honest yet judgment-free conversations with loved ones about these signs of forgetfulness or memory loss is important.

“There’s such a stigma to dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss that, as a way of self-preservation, we start to become defensive and come up with ways to not appear to have that memory loss,” Margaret explained. “But denial oftentimes contributes to the problem.  At the same time, we also do not want to jump to conclusions. That’s when the conversation with our family and physician becomes so important.”

When we have those conversations that are open and free of judgment, we are not instilling fear in the individual, but rather taking that step in normalizing the idea that “This is okay.” This could be either a casual talk at the dinner table or even a much deeper conversation about your concerns. Regardless, with this new mindset, we’ll be able to look at the individual holistically, and take the proper steps to approach forgetfulness and memory loss.

Food for Thought

How will you normalize forgetfulness? How can we take action to make sure we face memory loss more in a positive light, rather than jump to conclusions?