It’s common to forget things now and then, but here’s how to know when to call your doctor.
You were rushing to leave the house this morning and forgot — again — where you left your car keys. Or maybe you spent at least five minutes looking for your reading glasses, only to realize they were hanging on the chain around your neck the whole time.
You’ve been wondering if it’s time to worry. Are these common memory lapses or a health issue, like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?
It’s always good to keep an eye on your health and ask questions — and while certain things are normal to forget, other signs should prompt you to call your doctor.
Memory issues that are normal
We’ve all had moments when we couldn’t remember something simple, like someone’s name, only to have it come to us later.
“Memory slips like this are common,” says Dr. Glen Finney, a behavioral neurologist at Geisinger. “The key is that it comes back to you eventually and that you didn’t completely forget. If it’s harder to remember or think things through than it used to be, even when you give yourself all the time you need with no distractions, you may need to see your doctor.”
If what you notice falls into any of these categories, your memory is likely nothing to worry about:
Forgetting facts over time
For example, if it’s been a while since you’ve done complex math, it might be hard to remember how to do it. This is called “transience.”
“Researchers speculate it may be the brain’s way of making room for new information or memories,” says Dr. Finney.
Forgetting for a moment why you went into a room or misplacing items (like your car keys) in a common place is a sign that your brain didn’t secure the details, likely because you were distracted.
It happens to us all, especially if we’re particularly tired, busy or stressed. Try retracing your steps to jog your memory when this happens to you.
Not being able to retrieve a memory in the moment
This happens when a memory is on the tip of your tongue. Also called “blocking,” it might happen if a stronger memory gets in the way.
“When this happens, try to relax. Then, usually, the memory will come back to you,” says Dr. Finney.
Forgetting minor details or having inaccurate memories
Find yourself remembering part of a memory but not all of it? Or maybe you get some of the minor details wrong.
This is called “misattribution.” It can be frustrating, but be open to someone else’s recollection of a particular event and try not to get frustrated with yourself for forgetting.
Memories are subject to suggestibility, meaning that something you learn after creating a memory can change how you recall it. If this happens only once in a while, it’s not a cause for concern.
Memory issues that may require a doctor
People who have memory loss symptoms that affect their day-to-day function may have dementia.
“Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in people over age 65,” says Dr. Finney. “More than 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and the biggest risk for developing the disease is getting older.”
If you or a loved one have the following symptoms frequently, it might be time to talk with your doctor:
Memory problems that impair daily living
Forgetting things you just learned, needing to have things repeated frequently, repeating yourself frequently or needing memory aides and notes to remember simple tasks when you never had to before… it can be frustrating.
When your memory impacts your daily life, working with your doctor to find a diagnosis may lead to treatment that can help.
Getting lost in familiar places
This can include not being able to find your way through your favorite park, getting lost on your way to work or forgetting how you got somewhere.
“Though some people can be embarrassed to admit when they get lost in a familiar place, coming to your doctor about a problem like this can help you stay safe in the future,” says Dr. Finney.
Misplacing objects in unusual places
Frequently being unable to find an object even after retracing your steps, or finding something in an unusual spot (such as your car keys in the refrigerator), may indicate a memory problem that requires working with your doctor.
When to talk to your doctor about forgetfulness
“While it can be hard to talk about, diagnosing dementia early can allow you to make plans for your future care with your loved ones,” says Dr. Finney. “It allows you and the people close to you to have a framework for making decisions.”
Some causes of dementia, like Alzheimer’s disease, are progressive, meaning memory loss symptoms get worse over time. But others can be fixed or stopped if caught early enough. So, if you or someone you know has noticed changes in your memory — especially if accompanied by other signs like challenges with planning and problem solving, difficulty with words and visual relationships, poor judgment or mood changes — talk to your doctor.