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 some time. 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 the type of memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. And some memory problems are the result of treatable conditions.

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

Memory loss and aging

Normal age-related memory loss doesn't prevent you from living a full and productive life. For example, you may forget a person's name, but recall it later in the day. You might misplace your glasses occasionally. Or maybe you find that you need to make lists more often than in the past in order 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 begins gradually in most cases, worsens over time and significantly impairs a person's abilities in work, social interactions and relationships.

Often, memory loss is one of the first or more recognizable signs of dementia. Other early signs may 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 around a familiar neighborhood
  • Undergoing sudden changes in mood or behavior for no apparent reason
  • Becoming less able to follow directions

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 (multi-infarct dementia)
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Lewy body dementia

Each of these conditions has a somewhat different disease process (pathology). Memory impairment isn't always the first sign of disease, and the type of memory problems may vary.

Mild cognitive impairment

Mild cognitive impairment is a notable change in thinking skills that's limited, for the most part, to a narrow set of problems, such as impairment only in memory. It generally doesn't prevent a person from carrying out everyday tasks and being socially engaged.

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

Other people experience little progression in memory loss, and they don't develop the whole spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia.

Jul. 07, 2011 See more In-depth