Memory loss: When to seek help

A number of conditions — not only Alzheimer's disease — can cause memory loss in older adults. Getting a prompt diagnosis and appropriate care is important.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Everyone forgets things at times. How often have you misplaced your car keys or forgotten the name of a person you just met?

Some degree of memory problems, as well as a modest decline in other thinking skills, is a fairly common part of aging. There's a difference, however, between normal changes in memory and memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. And some memory problems are the result of treatable conditions.

If you're having memory problems, talk to your doctor to get a diagnosis and appropriate care.

Memory loss and aging

Normal age-related memory loss doesn't prevent you from living a full, productive life. For example, you might occasionally forget a person's name, but recall it later in the day. You might misplace your glasses sometimes. Or maybe you need to make lists more often than in the past to remember appointments or tasks.

These changes in memory are generally manageable and don't disrupt your ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.

Memory loss and dementia

The word "dementia" is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms, including impairment in memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills. Dementia usually begins gradually, worsens over time and impairs a person's abilities in work, social interactions and relationships.

Often, memory loss that disrupts your life is one of the first or more-recognizable signs of dementia. Other early signs might include:

  • Asking the same questions repeatedly
  • Forgetting common words when speaking
  • Mixing words up — saying "bed" instead of "table," for example
  • Taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe
  • Misplacing items in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer
  • Getting lost while walking or driving in a familiar area
  • Having changes in mood or behavior for no apparent reason

Diseases that cause progressive damage to the brain — and consequently result in dementia — include:

  • Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia
  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy body dementia

The disease process (pathology) of each of these conditions differs somewhat. Memory impairment isn't always the first sign, and the type of memory problems varies. It's also possible to have more than one type of dementia, known as mixed dementia.

Mild cognitive impairment

This involves a notable decline in at least one area of thinking skills, such as memory, that's greater than the changes of aging and less than those of dementia. Having mild cognitive impairment doesn't prevent you from performing everyday tasks and being socially engaged.

Researchers and physicians are still learning about mild cognitive impairment. For many people, the condition eventually progresses to dementia due to Alzheimer's disease or another disorder causing dementia.

Other people's memory loss doesn't progress much, and they don't develop the spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia.

June 27, 2017 See more In-depth