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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

Is Your Memory Normal?

Before you diagnose yourself with Alzheimer's disease, take heart: Experts say some memory lapses are normal.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

They say that memory loss is the second thing to happen as you get older. So what's the first? Umm, I forgot! And actually, by the time you reach the end of this story, you may remember only a fraction of it. Not to worry, you're not alone.

Experts say that mild memory loss is perfectly normal -- especially as we age. That's right, if you sometimes forget simple things, you're not necessarily developing Alzheimer's disease. There is a gang of people walking around just like you who occasionally misplace their keys, have that deer-in-headlights look as they search for their cars in parking lots, and can't recall the name of one new person they met at their last office party -- yes, the one from last night. And there's a reason for those character-themed floors coupled with the happy-go-lucky music in Disney amusement park parking garages.

"If we have forgotten an appointment, we begin thinking, 'Uh oh, is this the first sign of Alzheimer's disease?' and we become much more conscious, and it gets kind of a disproportionate amount of attention when it really may be something quite benign," Stuart Zola, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory School of Medicine and director of Yerkes National Primate Facility in Atlanta tells WebMD.

Memory is the ability to normally recall the facts and events of our lives, and this takes place in three stages:

  • Stage 1: Encoding. This is when a person takes information in.
  • Stage 2: Consolidation. This is when the brain takes the information it encodes and processes it so that it gets stored in certain areas of the brain.
  • Stage 3: Retrieval. When a person recalls stored information in the brain.

But differentiating between normal memory loss and Alzheimer's disease can be puzzling for a layman; the kind of memory that is affected in day-to-day situations is also the kind affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Time: Memory's Worst Enemy

Fear not, memory loss and brain aging are a natural part of getting older. "It is often the case that people will start to report in their 50s that they think their memories are slipping," says Zola, a research career scientist who has dedicated his work to memory function. "They seem to be consciously aware of that because they have to use more kinds of reminders or more kinds of strategies to remember things."

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