It's How Medicine Should Be®


French German Italian Portuguese Russian

When to Worry About Memory Loss

Is your forgetfulness cause for concern?

Older man reading

When is the last time you gave serious thought to memory loss and its effect on your well-being? Can't remember? That's OK — it doesn't mean you should be concerned. 

Just because you sometimes forget your neighbor's name doesn't mean you're developing dementia, a loss of brain function that affects memory, thinking and behavior. But there are signs and risk factors that may point to more serious problems, such as Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia.

Julie Schneider, MD, a neurologist and neuropathologist at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, shares some helpful information on memory loss, such as when to be concerned and what you can do to stay sharp.

Q: Is memory loss an inevitable part of aging?

Schneider: Not at all. We have conducted studies at Rush where we use annual cognitive testing to track memory and other cognitive functions in people from ages 65 to over 100, and some of them don’t have any memory loss with age. So you certainly can age without having any significant memory loss.

Q: When should I be concerned?

Schneider: On occasion, all of us forget things. It's when forgetfulness becomes more persistent and severe, affects everyday function, and other persons who are close to you take notice that it may signal there is a problem. For instance, you may frequently forget what people tell you, forget recent events, or get lost in familiar locations. In addition, a problem may become evident when your family or friends note that you are asking repetitive questions or repeating yourself or having other memory problems.

If you have a first-degree relative who has Alzheimer's, your risk for the disease goes up — similar to other diseases that run in families — so that would be a reason to be especially mindful of any memory changes. But if you occasionally misplace things, forget a word or forget someone's name, those aren't reasons to be concerned.

Q: What are some of the causes of memory loss? Can it be reversed?

Schneider: There are many things that can cause memory loss. Some medications — such as pain medicines or drugs used to treat anxiety or urinary incontinence — can be the problem. If you stop taking the drug that’s causing the problem, your memory will likely improve.

Medical and psychological problems —including depression, and deficiencies of thyroid and vitamin B12 — can all cause memory issues, and these also may be reversible once the underlying condition is treated. If you have a stroke or a transient ischemic attack — you may experience memory loss but may recover some of your previous functioning. If, however, it's a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's, memory loss progresses and there's no known way of reversing it.

Q: What can I do to decrease the risk of developing dementia?

Schneider: People who are more involved in cognitive activities (e.g., reading and playing games) seem to have a delayed onset of early dementias. Similarly, people who have larger social networks and people who exercise regularly can decrease their risk.

Research at Rush has found that diets low in saturated fats, and rich in vitamin E and healthy fats such as omega-3 may have a lower risk. And that people who have higher purpose in life — deriving meaning from life's experiences — have lower incidence of dementias.