You walked purposely into the kitchen this morning, and you realized that you had no clue what you were there to do. So, you emptied the dishwasher and cleaned out the refrigerator before remembering that you were supposed to be checking the calendar to see what was on the day’s agenda. At least you got some things accomplished, right? At lunchtime, you lost your glasses, but you managed to find them on top of your head after only about five minutes of searching. Then, you were discussing your favorite movies at dinner, and you completely blanked when a friend asked you about the name of an actor in a film that you’d seen together. Forgetfulness happens. Sometimes, it happens a lot. It’s part of being human. However, it can also be a warning sign of health problems. That’s why knowing when to worry about forgetfulness is important.
When to Worry About Forgetfulness
It’s a fact of life: Growing older can mean growing more forgetful. However, the normal age-related changes in memory are different from those seen in people who are battling dementia. It’s also worth noting that there are some reversible causes of memory loss that might be worth investigating if forgetfulness is bothering you.
Forgetfulness as a Warning Sign of Dementia
Dementia slowly steals the memory, reasoning, judgment, language, and thinking skills of those it afflicts. When someone is worried that their forgetfulness might be something more, dementia is often on their mind. However, not all forms of forgetfulness are red flags for dementia. Minor, manageable changes that don’t cause much disruption or affect your ability to live or work independently should not cause serious concern. When should you worry? The National Institute on Aging suggests watching for signs like the following:
- You experience memory loss that makes it difficult to function independently.
- You get lost in a familiar area.
- You ask the same questions or repeat stories.
- You forget common words or mix up familiar words.
- You misplace things in inappropriate places.
- You have trouble following directions.
- You struggle with completing familiar tasks.
- You deal with mood swings or surprising behavior changes.
Reversible Causes of Forgetfulness
It may be comforting to know that your memory glitches are unlikely to be a red flag for dementia. However, dementia isn’t the only thing that can cause forgetfulness. There are actually several medical problems that can cause memory issues, and proper treatment may restore your memory. Mayo Clinic lists a few possibilities:
- Medications: Some medications or combinations of medications can cause memory issues.
- Vitamin B-12 Deficiency: The body needs Vitamin B-12 to keep its nerve cells and red blood cells healthy and strong. A deficiency, which is common in seniors, can cause memory issues.
- Hypothyroidism: An underactive thyroid can cause a sluggish metabolism, slow thinking, and memory trouble.
- Head Trauma: A head injury can trigger thinking and memory problems, even if you don’t lose consciousness.
- Alcoholism: Chronic alcoholism is known to impair cognition.
- Brain Disease: An infection or tumor can cause memory and cognitive issues.
- Emotional Disorders: Stress, anxiety, and depression can cause difficulties with memory and thinking.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re wondering about when to worry about forgetfulness because you’re concerned about your own recent absentmindedness, then it might be worth discussing the matter with your doctor. If you’re concerned about a memory issue, there are tests that your doctor can perform to establish a baseline for future evaluations, determine the degree of any existing impairment, and identify potential causes. Because memory issues can have physical causes, your doctor will often begin with a thorough physical exam. They’ll also ask questions to judge your thinking skills. In many cases, bloodwork or imaging tests will be requested. If the circumstances warrant it, you may be sent on to specialists for further care. Specialists who often treat memory disorders include neurologists, geriatricians, and psychiatrists.
Forgetfulness is a common punchline in jokes about getting older, but it isn’t always a laughing matter. Understanding when you can shrug it off and when you should be concerned can make dealing with the inevitable moment of absentmindedness less stressful.
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