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Are Memory Problems Really a Normal Part of Aging?

Are Memory Problems Really a Normal Part of Aging?

This article is for people who are living with Alzheimer's disease and their care partners, or anyone who wants to learn more about changes in memory and cognition (how you think). The goal of this activity is to help you talk to and work with your doctor and healthcare team about the symptoms of early Alzheimer's disease.

You will learn about:

  • How your memory and cognition can change as you get older¬†

  • Alzheimer's disease and its symptoms

  • Talking to your doctor and healthcare team about your memory and cognition

  • Questions you can ask

Test Your Knowledge

Your Memory and Cognition Can Change as You Get Older

As you get older, changes in your memory and cognition (the way you think) are common and can happen naturally. For many, mild forgetfulness is a normal part of aging.

But problems with memory and cognition can also be caused by different health conditions. Memory loss is a key symptom of Alzheimer's disease, so knowing what symptoms can look like is important. When memory loss disrupts or interferes with your everyday functioning and daily life, it's not a typical or normal part of aging.

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is a condition that affects the parts of the brain that control memory, thought, and language.

Alzheimer's happens when certain brain proteins don't work like they should and protein deposits cause damage. The brain shrinks and brain cells (neurons) eventually die. This results in changes in your memory and cognition that can impact your ability to function and do everyday tasks.

Alzheimer's is also the most common cause of dementia, a condition where you lose memory, thinking, behavior, and social skills over time. Dementia is not a normal part of getting older.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

Some people may develop a condition called mild cognitive impairment (MCI) that can be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease.

With MCI, you can have problems with your memory or cognition that are greater than usual for your age and may include:

  • Frequently losing things

  • Forgetting to go to events or appointments

  • Trouble finding words and problems communicating

But with MCI you're still able to function, do normal daily activities, and take care of yourself. And while not everyone who is living with MCI will develop Alzheimer's, it can increase your chances of developing dementia.

How Alzheimer's Disease Can Progress

Alzheimer's disease often begins developing years before symptoms appear. And while damage usually starts in the part of the brain that controls memory, Alzheimer's can get worse (progress) over time and many other areas of the brain can become damaged as well.

Alzheimer's disease and its symptoms typically happen in stages, including:

  • Preclinical where changes in the brain start several years before memory and thinking problems happen. Not everyone who has these changes will develop dementia

  • Mild (or early-stage) when Alzheimer's disease is often first found or diagnosed

  • Moderate where you may need more care and supervision

  • Severe (or late-stage) where you may not be able to communicate and will likely need to depend on others for your care

Recognizing Alzheimer's Disease Symptoms

Early symptoms of Alzheimer's often include memory problems. In the beginning, you may realize you're having trouble, but over time, serious memory problems and being unable to do daily tasks can happen. As symptoms get worse, someone else -- such as a family member or friend -- is oftentimes more likely to be the person who notices changes.

Knowing what a symptom of Alzheimer's disease can look like is important. So don't wait -- talk to your doctor or healthcare team member as soon as possible about any changes or problems.

Recognizing Alzheimer's Disease Symptoms (cont)

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease can be different for different people and may include:

  • Memory problems

  • Losing track of dates or forgetting important events

  • Forgetting your current location, getting lost, or wandering

  • Difficulty solving problems or working with numbers

  • Trouble planning or following a plan

  • Problems speaking or writing words

  • Forgetting recently learned information or asking the same questions over and over

  • Trouble doing or finishing daily or familiar tasks

  • Frequently losing or misplacing things and not being able to retrace your steps to find them

  • Poor judgment and making bad decisions

  • Loss of motivation

  • Mood and personality changes, including anxiety or aggression

Change That May Be Related to Getting Older Alzheimer's Disease Symptom
Sometimes being confused about which day of the week it is, but figuring it out later Losing track of the date, time of year, or passage of time
Occasionally forgetting names or appointments, but remembering them later Frequently forgetting important dates, appointments, or events
Forgetting or having trouble finding the right word once in a while Trouble following conversations or stopping and not being able to continue
Taking longer or being slower doing familiar tasks, but doing them correctly Trouble doing or frequently needing help doing daily or familiar tasks

Bringing Up Memory and Cognition Problems

Getting diagnosed early and correctly is important for proper care and treatment. If you or a family member is having problems with memory or cognition, don't hesitate to ask questions and talk to your doctor or healthcare team member at the first sign of changes. They can help you understand if it may be a symptom of Alzheimer's disease. 

Keeping a journal or diary where you track and record any memory or cognition problems or changes and write down any questions can help for when you talk to your doctor.

Dr James E. Galvin -- a specialist in problems with memory and cognition -- discusses recognizing the early symptoms of Alzheimer's and talking to your doctor and healthcare team.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor and Healthcare Team

Questions you can ask about memory and cognition can include:

  • How will I know if I'm having changes in my memory or cognition?

  • What can Alzheimer's disease symptoms look like?

  • How soon should I contact you if I'm having memory or cognition problems?

  • Are there any tests or exams I should have?

  • Is there a specialist or another healthcare team member I should see?

  • Are there any tips you can give me to help with my memory and cognition?

  • Are there ways to help me talk to my family and friends about my memory and cognition?

  • What can I do if I start to feel stressed or depressed?

  • Where can I find more information and resources?

Test Your Knowledge

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You have successfully completed the program Are Memory Problems Really a Normal Part of Aging?

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Memory, Forgetfulness, and Aging: What's Normal and What's Not?

Forgetfulness: Normal or Not?

How the Aging Brain Affects Thinking

What Is Alzheimer's Disease?

10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer's

Authors and Disclosures

Faculty

James E. Galvin, MD, MPH

Professor of NeurologyUniversity of Miami Miller School of MedicineMiami, Florida James E. Galvin, MD, MPH, has the following relevant financial relationships:Consultant or advisor for: Alpha Cognition, Inc.; Biogen; Cognivue; Eisai Inc.; PassageBio.

Clinician Reviewer

Joy P. Marko, MS, APN-C

Senior Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC. Joy P. Marko, MS, APN-C has no relevant financial relationships.

Editor

Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC. Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh has no relevant financial relationships.

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