As a neurologist of 25 years and Alzheimer’s specialist for 10, I have a lot of people come to see me with concerns about changes in their ability to remember things like they used to. Becoming aware of memory deficits can be a very scary thing to face and so the concerns of my patients are not unfounded. In this section I will walk you through some basic information about the differences between forgetfulness which we might consider “normal,” and the more serious variety of memory loss for which I would recommend further testing.
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What differentiates “normal” forgetfulness from signs of a more serious problem is related to a lot of medical issues, of which we won’t detail here. The Alzheimer’s Association has some great information on this, but one way to look at this issue has a lot to do with where in the brain the forgotten information was stored.
For example, the hippocampus is considered the main area of the brain to receive and distribute new information. As we age, cells in this area both die off and regenerate, although the new cells grow more slowly and the old cells die more rapidly the older we get. This has a significant impact on memory.
If you forget the name of a person you just met at a party, that’s neither terribly important nor a real problem. If you forget the name of your spouse of 30 years when telling a story, this is information stored in long term memory and is likely to signal a deeper problem (either with your memory or your marriage!).
Part of the problem is that by the time the more serious problems become apparent to loved ones, people with cognitive impairment are often far too advanced to take advantage of many of the new treatments for AD. For this reason it is important to know the possible signs and screen yourself and your loved ones regularly for optimum brain health.
Here are some things that could signal cognitive impairment and are reason enough to seek out early screening and/or visit your physician immediately:
While most people experience changes in both mind and body as we age, such as slowing down and sometimes forgetting things, serious changes in memory and mental function are not normal parts of the aging process.
It can be a fine line between simple forgetfulness and serious changes in mental function. Unfortunately, by the time people and their loved ones notice significant changes, the patient is already beyond the early treatment window. That is why it is so important to test one’s memory and mental processes early and often.