Is Forgetfulness A Precursor of Alzheimer's?

Caregiver, patient expert
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Millions of aging boomers wonder if their memory lapses are from normal aging, or a sign that they are developing Alzheimer’s. There’s some basis for the worry. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million people in the U.S. are living with it. One in three seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia.

While these statistics are scary, you shouldn't let them cloud the reality that many of us will age normally and will not develop AD, or any other type of dementia. Certainly, we will have some memory changes as we age. Improvements in our lifestyle may help mitigate some of those. Other changes we’ll just have to live with. So what is normal memory loss and when should we worry?

What if you momentarily forgot an old friend's name? What if it routinely takes time to remember where you left your car keys, or your glasses? Are these glitches something to be worried about?

In most cases, no.

This is likely the effect of normal aging. Just as the rest of the body ages, so does the brain. Recall may slow down. You may not be able to juggle as many things at once and still do them well. You are likely to be more easily distracted. The “tip of the tongue” syndrome, forgetting why you went into a room, forgetting where you last left an object -- these are all common occurrences with age and aren’t normally something to be concerned about.

The best way to defend against severe age-related memory loss is the same way you defend physical abilities: keeping your mind and body active will help both.

In fact, during the latest International Alzheimer’s Conference, researchers stressed that challenging work is one of our greatest defenses against not just memory loss but even Alzheimer’s disease. The studies underscored the old saying: “use it or lose it.”

If you’re 60-years-old will your memory be as quick as it was when you were 20? Not likely. However, you have decades of experience to draw on, so your wisdom will contribute to your decision making skills which may actually make you more prepared to navigate life.

Unless your memory issues disrupt your life so significantly that they are more than simply frustrating, it’s unlikely you’re developing dementia. On the other hand, if your problems make you fearful or are preventing you from living your life in a normal manner, you may have something to be concerned about.

In that case you should have a good physical exam so that your doctor can discover and treat reversible symptoms of dementia. These issues can include medication side effects, thyroid problems, infections, a vitamin B12 deficiency and more. Don’t panic, but do get checked out.

If you are physically okay, but still have frequent memory issues as opposed to occasional glitches, this could be a sign of something called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). If this is the case, you may want to seek an evaluation just to test where you are cognitively, because a large percentage of people with MCI eventually do develop Alzheimer’s. Early diagnosis could help you cope with this in a more productive way.

How to evaluate yourself at home

A convenient tool to help you decide whether you should seek help is available free on the Ohio State University website. Called the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE), the test is designed to detect early signs of cognitive, memory or thinking impairments. You can take the test on your computer in about 15 minutes.

The bottom line is that what you are experiencing is likely normal memory loss unless it is disrupting your life.

However, if you truly are concerned, make certain that there aren’t any potentially reversible reasons for your brain fog or forgetfulness. Next, you may want to take the SAGE test just so you are more informed. Remember, it’s free and private. If you are still concerned, see a neurologist or a dementia specialist of some type to determine if you have MCI or are actually on the road to dementia.

You may find this last step scary, but if you are truly worried, it’s by far better to know what is happening than to struggle going forward into the unknown. Alzheimer’s can’t yet be cured but assistance for planning and care is available.

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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder_ and on Facebook _Minding Our Elders.