Memory Loss with Aging: What's normal, what's not?1

Memory complaints are common within the elderly population, and their frequency usually increases with age. Decline of memory function is a normal process of aging, but it may also be the result of a pathological condition such as Alzheimer's disease(AD). The process of distinguishing between normal and pathological changes is not straightforward. An important difference is that, contrary to pathological changes, changes due to the normal aging process are, in most cases, not severe enough to interfere with the person's level of function.

What are some other causes of memory problems?

Many things other than aging can cause memory problems. These include, among others, depression, dementia, head injury, strokes, side effects of drugs or medications, and alcoholism.

What about when I know a word but can't recall it?

This is usually just a glitch in your memory. You'll almost always remember the word with time. This may become more common as you age. It can be very frustrating, but it's not usually serious.

How can I tell if my memory problems are serious?

A memory problem is serious when it affects your daily living. If you sometimes forget names, you're probably okay. But you may have a more serious problem if you have trouble remembering how to do things you've done many times before, getting to a place you've been too often, or doing things that use steps, like following a recipe.

Another difference between normal memory problems and dementia is that normal memory loss doesn't get much worse over time. Dementia gets much worse over several months to several years.

It may be hard to figure out on your own if you have a serious problem. Talk to your family doctor about any concerns you have. Your doctor may be able to help you if your memory problems are caused by a medicine you're taking or by depression.

  1. Ageing, Memory Loss and Dementia: What's the difference?, Alzheimer's Association,