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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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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.

Other Causes of Memory Loss

But even if you think your slips of the old noggin aren't normal, there could be other reasons for it short of Alzheimer's disease, including:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Metabolic diseases such as thyroid gland diseases, diabetes, and lung, liver, or kidney failure
  • Alcoholism
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency
  • Infections
  • Drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter

The good news is, causes of memory loss from many of these conditions are normally reversible. Zola says depression and stress are the most common reasons for temporary memory problems.

"If your encoding isn't good, you're not going to get the information in properly, and so you're going to have difficulty retrieving it because it isn't there in good form to retrieve. So that's the kind of memory problem associated with depression, or with attention deficit disorder, as its name implies, you have trouble paying attention and focusing."

Stress affects the way the brain processes memory, Zola tells WebMD. "So it's not so surprising that you have memory problems often during very stressful states because part of the brain is not engaged in the way it needs to ordinarily be in order to have good memory."

Use It or Lose It

No matter how "normal" memory lapses may be, let's face it, that doesn't make them any less frustrating. Experts agree that the best way to keep your brain fit is to keep using it.

"People should realize that they have more control than they think, that one-third [of memory loss] is genetics, that means we have the potential to influence a large component of our brain aging," Gary Small, MD, author of The Memory Bible: An innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young, and director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the UCLA psychiatric institute tells WebMD. "The sooner we get started, the sooner we're going to benefit from it."

Small emphasizes four things in his books to slow down brain aging: mental activity, physical fitness, stress reduction, and healthy diet. "People who eat too much are at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other conditions that increase their risk for small strokes in the brain. Secondly, you want to have a diet that's rich in antioxidants." Small says antioxidants help protect brain cells and exercise helps with overall health.

Staying intellectually and socially engaged are "probably the most important things you can do to help extend and maintain your cognitive abilities for a longer period of time in life," Zola says. Challenging oneself by learning new things, reading, and taking up hobbies keep the brain active and strong for the long haul.

Some other things you can do to improve memory include:

  • Focus your attention. Forgetfulness may indicate that you have too much on your mind. Slow down and focus on the task at hand. Small says multitasking and not paying attention are some of the biggest causes of forgetfulness, especially in younger people.
  • Reduce stress. Stress can endanger the brain areas involved with memory processing and impair memory.
  • Choose to snooze. Zola says sleep is important because fatigue can affect memory and concentration in any age group.
  • Structure your environment. Use calendars and clocks, lists and notes, and write down daily activities on a planner or use an electric organizer. Store easy-to-lose items in the same place each time after using them. Park your car in the same place at the office each day.
  • Try memory tricks. To remember a person's name, repeat it several times after being introduced. Use the same personal identification number (PIN) for all of your accounts if necessary.

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