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Memory and Thinking: What's Normal and What's Not?

Memory and Thinking: What's Normal and What's Not?

Editorial note: Content for this Q&A is from the National Institute on Aging.

Whether you’re getting older or someone you love is aging, it’s common to worry about memory and thinking abilities. But what’s the difference between mild forgetfulness, which is often a normal part of aging, and a more serious memory problem? Read this Q&A to learn the basics. Plus, find out when it’s time to see a doctor to determine whether you are experiencing memory or thinking problems and what may be causing them.

What’s normal and what’s not?

The difference between normal, age-related forgetfulness and a serious memory problem is that memory problems make it hard to do everyday things, like driving or shopping. Here are common signs you or someone you love has a problem:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Not being able to follow instructions
  • Becoming confused about time, people, and places

What counts as normal forgetfulness?

Many people become more forgetful as they age. Here are some typical examples of mild forgetfulness:

  • Missing a monthly payment
  • Forgetting which day it is and remembering later
  • Sometimes forgetting which word to use
  • Losing things from time to time

Some forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, but don’t ignore changes in your memory or thinking that concern you. Talk with your doctor if you’re having more serious memory problems than normal.

What’s mild cognitive impairment?

Some older adults have a condition called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. This means they have more memory or other thinking problems than other people their age. People with MCI can take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer's. Here are some signs of MCI:

  • Losing things often
  • Forgetting to go to important events or appointments
  • Having more trouble coming up with desired words than other people of the same age

If you have MCI, visit your doctor every six to 12 months to see if you have any changes in memory and other thinking skills over time. There may be things you can do to maintain your memory and mental skills.

What’s dementia?

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, learning, and reasoning — and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. Memory loss, though common, is not the only sign. A person may also have problems with language skills, visual perception, or paying attention. Some people have personality changes. Dementia is not a normal part of aging.

Are there different forms of dementia?

Yes. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form in people over 65.

What’s Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. There are two forms of the disease — early-onset and late-onset. Most people with Alzheimer’s have the late-onset form.

What does Alzheimer’s disease look like?

Memory problems are typically one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s, though initial symptoms may vary from person to person. A decline in other aspects of thinking, such as finding the right words, vision and spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment, may also signal the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

People with Alzheimer’s have trouble doing everyday things like driving a car, cooking a meal, or paying bills. They may ask the same questions over and over, get lost easily, lose things or put them in odd places, and find even simple things confusing. As the disease progresses, some people become worried, angry, or violent.

When is it time to see a doctor?

If you, a family member, or friend has problems remembering recent events or thinking clearly, talk with a doctor. They may suggest a thorough checkup to see what might be causing the symptoms.

Memory and other thinking problems have many possible causes, including depression, an infection, or a medication side effect. Sometimes, the problem can be treated, and the thinking problems disappear. Other times, the problem cannot be reversed. Finding the cause of the problems is important to determine the best course of action.

What should I know about unproven treatments?

Some people are tempted by untried or unproven "cures" that claim to make the brain sharper or prevent dementia. Check with your doctor before trying pills, supplements, or other products that promise to improve memory or prevent brain disorders. These "treatments" might be unsafe, a waste of money, or both. They might even interfere with other medical treatments. Currently there is no drug or treatment that prevents Alzheimer's disease or other dementias.