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.
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
- Metabolic diseases such as thyroid gland diseases, diabetes, and lung, liver, or kidney failure
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency
- 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.
When to See a Doctor
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive condition that damages areas of the brain involved in memory, intelligence, judgment, language, and behavior. While there is no definitive way to pinpoint an Alzheimer's brain -- short of autopsy -- there are some diagnostic ways doctors distinguish normal memory loss from that which should raise concern. Normal forgetfulness includes:
- Forgetting parts of an experience
- Forgetting where you park the car
- Forgetting events from the distant past
- Forgetting a person's name, but remembering it later
While research shows that up to half of people over age 50 have mild forgetfulness linked to age-associated memory impairment, there are signs when more serious memory conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, are happening, including:
- Forgetting an experience
- Forgetting how to drive a car or read a clock
- Forgetting recent events
- Forgetting ever having known a particular person
- Loss of function, confusion, or decreasing alertness
- Symptoms become more frequent or severe
Still confused? Zola sums it up. "The kind of rule of thumb that's kind of whimsical in a sense but clinicians often use is, if you're worried about [your memory], it's probably not that serious, but if your friends and relatives are worried about it, then it probably is more serious."