Memory Loss: Introduction

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Memory Loss

Does this sound familiar? 

  • When I leave the shopping centre, I often forget where I parked my car.
  • I can’t remember where I left my keys.
  • I walk into a room and forget what I came for.
  • Sometimes I blank on the names of my own grandchildren.

These little slips can be worrisome. Yet, just like the rest of our body, our memory passes through the aging process. If your forgetfulness isn’t affecting your day-to-day life or hindering your independence, it’s just a matter of your memory aging normally. There are tricks and strategies for keeping this forgetfulness to a minimum.

What is memory loss?

Your memory is a component of the brain. It is defined as the faculty of recalling what you have seen, learned, etc.

The memory is a complex function of the brain which encodes, stores and retrieves information. Generally speaking, we can identify two types of memory: short-term and long-term.

Short-term memory temporarily retains information in order to complete a specific task, such as doing mental calculations or playing chess.

Long-term memory stores recent and old memories and also retains the knowledge we acquire over our lifetime (e.g.: Rome is the capital of Italy), as well as learned motor skills (driving a car, playing a musical instrument, playing a sport) and the languages we speak. For more information on how the memory works, visit thebrain.mcgill.ca, a site hosted by McGill University.

The following memory problems are NOT part of the normal aging process:

  • Forgetting how to do things you've done many times before
  • Having trouble learning new things that you could have easily learned in the past
  • Repeating sentences or facts in the same conversation
  • Having trouble making choices or handling money
  • Experiencing changes in your conduct
  • Forgetting your good manners
  • Losing interest in day-to-day activities and not looking after yourself

A simple memory lapse or a more serious memory problem?

It’s usually just the little things that you tend to forget. But for a lot of people, memory lapses can be a cause for concern. As a general rule, having trouble remembering things should only worry you if it happens frequently, is something new, or is getting worse and hindering your day-to-day activities (handling your finances, taking your medication). In these circumstances, it is advisable to discuss the situation with your doctor.

Forgetfulness usually stems from not paying attention (thinking of your grocery list while your daughter is speaking to you), or occurs when information is conveyed too quickly (not enough time to absorb it properly) or when the information in your memory is temporarily inaccessible (but comes to you later). This is all part of normal memory function, in younger and older people alike.

Did you know?

  • 50% of people over the age of 50 complain about their memory.
  • 75% of people over the age of 75 complain about their memory.
  • One per cent of 65 to 74-year-olds suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
  • 25% of people over the age of 80 suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

I have memory lapses, is this serious?

Take a look at your life. Are you going through a stressful period (retirement, death of a loved one, illness, worries, moving) or are you suffering from fatigue (overwork, lack of sleep, constant drowsiness, sleep apnea, insomnia)? What medications are you taking? It might be difficult for you to assess the cause or gravity of the problem. Share your concerns with your family doctor; he or she will be able to help you. Certain causes of memory or concentration problems can be treated.

Don't accept being told, "it's normal at your age"

Don’t confuse natural changes in your memory due to aging with the pathological aging of your memory.

For a long time it was believed that a gradual loss of neurons (brain cells) was the sole cause of memory problems in older adults. Now we know that we have sufficient neurons to reach an advanced age and still have a good memory.

When you reach your twenties, your memory starts undergoing gradual changes. Starting at the age of 50, memory complaints are among the most common reasons for seeking medical advice. These complaints are brought into clear focus not only because they are increasing proportionally with the aging of the population, but also because of the fear that they could be the sign of a memory disease, like Alzheimer’s. Keep in mind that a memory problem doesn’t necessarily mean you have the disease.

Memory concerns do not always lead to serious problems, but they can certainly cause worry. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s normal to be forgetful at your age. There are tools and strategies for improving your memory and maintaining your independence.

Next: I've become forgetful, do I have Alzheimer's disease?

 

We are pleased to house this series of FAQs supervised by Cara Tannenbaum, from the Centre de recherche de l’Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal.

Browse Contents about Memory Loss

The FAQs are also not meant to be a substitute for medical advice. When you have questions about your health, it is always advisable to ask a health care practitioner.

Health Professional Guide to Memory Loss