It's not uncommon for older people to worry they're destined for dementia because they sometimes forget where they put their keys. Fortunately, in many cases, memory loss is just a normal part of the aging process, a side effect of medication or a symptom of a treatable disease.
A certain amount of forgetfulness is part of the normal aging process. For example, many people notice they have trouble remembering names as they get older. This is not a sign of dementia, which is defined as a decline in mental abilities to a degree that affects daily activities (Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia.)
An old adage provides a general guideline for telling the difference between age-related memory loss and dementia: "You need not worry if you forget where you put your car keys. You only need worry if you forget what they're used for." In general, people with dementia are unaware of any mental problems. In contrast, people with memory loss not caused by dementia usually complain about it.
If you have difficulty concentrating or remembering things, see your doctor. In many cases, a treatable condition may be to blame. Treatable causes of memory loss include:
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- medication side effects
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- depression and/or anxiety
- severe hypothyroidism (myxedema)
- vitamin B12 deficiency (pernicious anemia)
- niacin deficiency
- sleep apnea
- hormonal imbalances due to thyroid disease or Cushing's disease
Additionally, taking steps to keep yourself healthy and well rested will often benefit your memory:
- Relax. Tension makes it more difficult for people to remember things. If you're about to take on a task that requires concentration, take a deep breath, hold it briefly, then breathe out. Repeat that pattern several times and feel yourself calming down.
- Exercise. Taking a 20- to 30-minute walk several times a week can improve high blood pressure, depression and diabetes, all of which can hamper memory. (Check with your doctor before starting any vigorous fitness program.)
- Stay mentally active. Take a class, learn a new language, try your hand at painting or play challenging games like chess. Research shows mental exercise may help preserve the mind.
- Make lists. Why try to remember when you can just write it down? Get in the habit of making lists of chores to do, phone calls to make and items to pick up at the store. Knowing that such things are written down will help you stay relaxed and free up your memory for other tasks.
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Alcohol makes brain cells die off faster than they otherwise would. Men should drink no more than the equivalent of one or two glasses of wine a day. Women should have no more than one glass daily.
- Repeat new facts. Repetition can aid memory. For example, when meeting someone for the first time, refer to him or her frequently by name during your conversation.
- Establish a routine for daily activities. For example, you might have breakfast, take your medication or vitamins, take a walk, then check your to-do list. Following that routine every morning will decrease the risk that you'll forget any of those important activities. Likewise, establish a routine for weekly tasks, such as paying bills every Monday after lunch.
Remember, forgetting things doesn't mean you're developing dementia. Talk to your doctor, support your memory in the ways outlined above and, most likely, you'll notice improvement.