Everyone has mild memory lapses from time to time. You go from the kitchen to the bedroom to get something, only to find yourself wondering what you needed. You can't find your car keys one day and your reading glasses the next.
Lapses such as these are usually just signs of a normal brain that's constantly prioritizing, sorting, storing, and retrieving all types of information. So how do you know when memory loss is abnormal and warrants evaluation by a health professional? Here are some questions to consider:
Rosemary Orange, 53, of Ottawa, Ontario, suspected something was wrong with her 83-year-old mother, Sylvia. "She'd go shopping and forget what she was doing," Orange says. "So she'd come right back home without buying anything."
Several months later, Orange's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, a type of dementia that affects nearly 36 million people worldwide. That rate is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years, according to the World Health Organization.
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Does the memory loss disrupt daily living? "If memory loss prevents someone from doing activities that they had no trouble handling before, like balancing a checkbook, keeping up with personal hygiene, or driving around, that should be checked," says John Hart, Jr., M.D., professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas and medical science director at the Center for BrainHealth.
How often do memory lapses occur? It's one thing to occasionally forget where you parked your car, but it's not normal to forget where you parked every day or to forget appointments over and over. Frequent memory lapses are likely to be noticeable because they tend to interfere with daily living.
What kinds of things are being forgotten? "It's normal to forget the name of someone you just met, but may not be normal to permanently forget the name of a close friend or relative," Hart says. "It also may not be normal to never remember meeting a person after you have spent a great deal of time with them." Most people have trouble remembering some details of a conversation, but forgetting whole conversations could signal a problem. Other red flags: frequently repeating yourself or asking the same questions in the same conversation.
Are there signs of confusion? Serious memory lapses may cause individuals to get lost in a familiar place or put something in an inappropriate place because they can't remember where it goes. Putting the car keys in the refrigerator is an example.
Is the memory loss getting worse? Memory loss that gets progressively worse over time should be evaluated by a health professional.