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Is Your Memory Normal?

Before you diagnose yourself with Alzheimer's disease, take heart: Experts say some memory lapses are normal.
By
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."

But memory loss can happen even before we hit our 50s. Many people even in their 20s and 30s have forgotten a name or an appointment date or some fact that was on the "tip of their tongue." Memory is tricky, and time is its worst enemy, says Zola. In fact, shortly after taking in information, memory traces begin to deteriorate, he explains. "Some things begin to fade right away, other things fade less quickly, and they're a bunch of different forgetting curves with different rates of forgetting depending the nature of the material, depending on how important it is for you, depending on your stress level, depending on ... all of the things that can affect memory."

If you've ever gotten into heated debate with someone about how a past event or experience transpired, there's a likely reason. You may think you have a vivid memory of an experience, but studies show that after awhile, people probably don't remember events as they actually happened. Memory distortion -- also a side effect of father time -- explains this. This is the phenomenon where as time passes our ability to accurately recall events becomes diminished -- and the longer the period of time that passes between the event and trying to recall it, the greater the chance we're going to have some memory distortions and forgetting. Sometimes time distortion causes us to forget the event totally, Zola explains.

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