Getting older goes hand in hand with forgetfulness — like not remembering the name of the new restaurant in town or misplacing your glasses. And while it can be frustrating, it isn’t instantly concerning (phew!).
“Some degree of memory loss can be considered normal, especially with age,” Carmen Carrión, a neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of neurology at Yale School of Medicine, told HuffPost via email.
“As people grow older, they may experience mild forgetfulness, such as misplacing keys or having trouble recalling names. These age-related memory changes are typically not a cause for concern,” Carrión added.
In other words, you don’t need to panic if you notice your memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be — that’s just a part of aging. And it isn’t exclusive to people whom society considers “old,” either.
“Here’s a very depressing fact: We start to lose neurons in our 30s,” said Dr. Michael Rosenbloom, a neurologist at the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center in Washington.
“With time, we become less efficient at learning and remembering, and to me, it almost feels like this life cycle — when you’re young and you’re a student, you need to learn more information and those systems have to be working on all cylinders, but when you get older, it’s less critical,” Rosenbloom said.
However, certain forms of memory loss are abnormal and can be indicative of larger issues. Below, neurologists told HuffPost the signs of abnormal memory loss and what to do if you’re concerned:
1. An inability to learn new things.
As time goes on, things like cell phones, computers and even cars require some additional education. Think about it: Compared to 30 years ago, cars have backup cameras, GPS capabilities and some are even all-electric.
If you find that you struggle to learn anything new, it could be concerning, experts say.
“The common thing in our society is you get a new device and you just cannot figure it out,” said Dr. Charles Bernick, a neurologist at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic.
It’s normal to need some time to get used to a new phone or laptop, but if it’s a totally impossible task, you may want to consider talking to your doctor.
2. Trouble doing and understanding things that used to come easily.
It could be a worrisome sign if everyday tasks that used to be easy are now challenging.
For example, “for people who [cook], forgetting recipes that they previously have been able to do easily for many years,” Bernick said.
Another big area people may notice abnormal forgetfulness? Finances, according to Bernick.
That could be forgetting to pay bills, paying bills twice, not understanding how finances work or forgetting how to make proper change when paying for items in stores.
“If the person is really starting to struggle, or finding even day-to-day activities a bit more difficult, that should be a red flag that something’s going on,” Bernick said.
The forgetfulness may not look exactly like this, but many other things — like personal hygiene, appointments and errands — also fall into day-to-day activities. Missing doctor’s appointments regularly and burning food due to forgetfulness could also be troubling, Rosenbloom said.
3. Quickly forgetting conversations.
You can’t be expected to remember every single conversation you’ve ever had, and you shouldn’t worry if you forget conversations from time to time. What is cause for concern? Immediately forgetting discussions, according to Rosenbloom.
“Normally, when one has a conversation, it is expected that you can at least remember having that conversation ... but, let’s say an hour goes by, the person forgets about having the conversation, that’s certainly concerning,” he said.
“They also should remember by the day’s end, too, so that’s also a red flag for me,” Rosenbloom added.
4. Getting lost in familiar places.
It’s perfectly normal to get lost from time to time, like when exploring somewhere you haven’t been in decades or visiting a new place. But getting lost in familiar places can sometimes be a sign of abnormal memory loss.
“One really telltale sign might be getting lost in your hometown, just not finding your way,” said Ulrich Mayr, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oregon.
This could look like getting lost while driving to the grocery store or on your walk home from an appointment. If this happens to you or a loved one, it should cause concern, Mayr said.
5. Repeating stories often.
It is normal to repeat yourself from time to time, recounting stories or facts to people who have heard them before. But if you’re doing this too often, it could be abnormal.
Specifically, if you are “repeating questions or stories within the same day or sometimes within a few minutes,” it could be a sign of abnormal memory loss, according to Carrión.
6. Your loved ones point out that something seems off.
If a loved one tells you they’re worried about your memory, try not to get defensive. Instead, take their concern seriously. What others notice about your memory could actually be more valuable than what you notice, Mayr said.
“The sort of subjective experience of one’s own memory is not a very reliable indicator of what’s really going on, that’s much more correlated with things like your overall tendency to worry,” Mayr said.
In other words, a loved one is more likely to be able to accurately spot issues like story repetition or day-to-day tasks.
Additionally, if you notice memory loss in a loved one, don’t be afraid to speak up. Your support and concern is important.
“I would actually take [concern from others] a lot more seriously than when somebody comes to me and tells me ‘Oh, my memory is not as good as it used to be,’” Mayr said.
An exception? Pregnancy-related memory loss or ‘mom brain.’
Many people experience forgetfulness or concentration issues during pregnancy and postpartum, a temporary issue informally known as “mom brain.”
“While the exact cause of ‘mom brain’ is not fully understood, it is believed to be influenced by various factors associated with pregnancy and early motherhood,” said Carrión, “hormonal fluctuations, sleep disturbances due to pregnancy or caring for a newborn, and the emotional and physical demands of pregnancy and parenting are among the contributing factors.”
Postpartum depression and anxiety are thought to be a factor, too, she noted.
“Mom brain” is normal, even expected, and it’s generally not concerning, according to Carrión.
But “persistent or severe cognitive issues, especially those associated with postpartum depression or anxiety, should be discussed with a healthcare professional to ensure appropriate support and intervention,” Carrión said.
Don’t panic: Memory loss does not always mean something like Alzheimer’s or dementia.
According to Bernick, one of the first things doctors look at when someone complains of memory loss is the medications they’re on.
“Medications can affect memory, even over-the-counter medicines like sleep medicines, Benadryl, for example, which is often in sleep medications,” said Bernick.
Certain prescription drugs can interfere with your memory, too, Bernick said.
Beyond medications, Mayr said hearing loss can be a factor.
“Hearing loss can be a major contributor to sort of just orienting yourself less well in your environment and just not getting enough information to keep up with conversations, and because of that, can subjectively and also, sort of in the eyes of others, manifest itself as memory loss,” Mayr said.
So, if you do have hearing loss, the best thing you can do is get hearing aids as soon as possible “because the longer you wait, the harder it is to actually use them in a productive manner,” said Mayr.
If it is something more serious, you should take action ASAP.
“It’s crucial to remember that while some memory loss is normal, significant and abnormal memory loss should not be ignored,” Carrión said. “Early detection and diagnosis of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease can lead to better management and potential treatments.”
If you are concerned about your memory loss or a loved one’s, get in touch with a health care provider, stat.
“One of the problems that we have, and that I’ve noticed in my career, is that people wait until it’s too late,” Rosenbloom said.
It’s also important to take care of your overall health to reduce your risk of problematic memory loss.
“We know that in people who do have other medical illnesses, primarily things like diabetes, high blood pressure, that treating those disorders and keeping them well managed, actually helps your brain health,” Bernick said.
“It’s not too surprising, there’s a connection between a lot of these different different disorders ... it’s not just everything in isolation,” Bernick added.
Mayr added that regular exercise and nutritious food are important, too. Taking care of yourself physically (and mentally) can help you maintain your memory and help fend off any issues.