You were rushing to leave the house this morning and forgot – again – where you last left your car keys. Then tonight, 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. Just how do you tell the difference between the normal memory problems and something worse, like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?

It’s an important question to ask.

Worldwide there are 47.5 million people with dementia, which describes a group of symptoms that affect cognitive tasks like memory and reasoning. 

“Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in people over the age of 65 years old,” said Dr. Glen Finney, director for Geisinger's Aging Brain and Behavioral Neurology. “Currently there are more than 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and the biggest risk of all for Alzheimer’s disease is your age.”

Memory issues that are normal

“We have all had moments when it was hard to recall some detail like someone’s name when you wanted it, only to have it come to you later,” said Dr. Finney. “However, given enough time you should be able to remember and do mentally all the things you used to be able to do even as you get older.  Knowing when you or someone you know should seek help can help prevent needless anxiety and needless tragedy.”

If what you experience falls into any of these categories, it’s likely nothing to worry about:

  • Forgetting facts over time: This is also called “transience.” Researchers speculate it may be the brain’s way of making room for new memories.
  • Being absent-minded: 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.
  • Not being able to retrieve a memory in the moment: This is the feeling of a memory or detail on the tip of your tongue. Also called “blocking,” there may be a stronger memory that gets in the way.  When you relax usually the memory comes back to you.
  • Forgetting minor details: You may remember part of the memory but not all of it, or you may get some of the minor details wrong. This is called “misattribution.”
  • Inaccurate memories: Memories are subject to suggestibility, meaning that something you learn after creating a memory can change how you recall it.  If this happens only every once in a while then that is common.
  • Biased memories: Two people who experience the same thing may recall it in different ways. You experience and recall memories through the lens of your personality and your previous experiences.

When it may be time to worry

There are some memory-related problems that may be cause for concern. If you or a loved one experience any of the following symptoms frequently, discuss them with a doctor:

  • Memory problems that impair daily living: Problems such as forgetting things you just learned, needing to have things repeated frequently, repeating yourself frequently, or requiring memory aides and notes to remember simple tasks when you never had to before. 
  • Getting lost in familiar places: Not being able to find your way through your favorite park, getting lost on your way to work, or forgetting how you got somewhere. 
  • Misplacing objects in unusual places: Frequently being unable to find an object after retracing your steps, or finding them in an unusual spot (such as your car keys in the refrigerator).

“Talk to your doctor if you or someone you know have noticed changes in your memory, especially if accompanied by other signs such as challenges with planning and problem solving, difficulty with words and visual relationships of things, poor judgment or mood changes,” said Dr. Finney.  “While some causes of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease are progressive, which means the symptoms get worse over time, others are reversible, which means they could be fixed or halted if caught early enough.  And if you are starting to get a dementia, knowing early may give you one last chance to make plans for your future care and living situation while you can still make good decisions.”

Tied string around finger to remember