By Paula Spencer Scott, Caring.com senior editor. Find her on Google+.
Are you worried about memory loss? Maybe you forgot where you parked. You blanked on a colleague's name. Or you keep losing things or forgetting appointments. You may wonder, "Is this normal memory loss or something more ominous – like a sign of mild cognitive impairment, or Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia?"
Ask yourself the following questions to help you decide whether to worry. Know that it's always a good idea to have nagging concerns about memory loss checked out by a doctor, psychologist or other expert in cognition and the brain. There are many reversible causes of memory loss, such as medications, stress and head injury, for example. (And there are easily available memory aids that can help many people.) An expert can identify the source of these lapses and structure a treatment plan, no matter what the cause.
When concerned about memory loss, ask yourself:
Are the memory problems a change for you?
It's true that nearly everyone's memory tends to get a little slower with age. Scientists think this partly has to do with the amount of information we've accumulated and the busy nature of our lives. When we're distracted or just not paying attention, short-term memory suffers.
If, however, problems are a significant and recent change, this can be a red flag. Compare not 30 years ago versus yesterday but last year versus yesterday.
Are the memory problems happening with increasing frequency?
The occasional gaffe can happen to anyone, at age 19 or 90. But if you're forgetting where you parked the car every time you go to the mall, that's different – especially if you also notice other kinds of forgetfulness. Memory problems associated with dementia happen with growing regularity. Another sign: You find yourself making excuses for mistakes or looking to blame others.
Is the quality of your life affected, or are the problems interfering with your ability to function in your daily life?
People with mild cognitive impairment – a change in thinking skills that develops into dementia only about half the time – can function well in everyday life. When memory lapses start to make it hard to function normally, however, consider it overdue to see a specialist. Examples include having new problems completing work effectively, missing deadlines, consistently missing appointments, having trouble with grooming, having trouble dealing with money, or having a car accident or getting lost.
Are you too worried to confide in anyone? Anyone who's had a memory lapse worries about its significance. But then we tend to joke about it, write it off to a bad day or perhaps mention it to the doctor – along with a litany of other symptoms. If your fears about memory problems have you so rattled that you're afraid to speak up to anyone, however, it's worth listening to this message your subconscious mind may be whispering to you. Tell someone of your concern. A doctor, for example, can ease your mind. A loved one can commiserate and share his or her observations, which may set your worries to rest.
Are others worried about you?
Family, friends and colleagues are often the first to notice memory changes. If others are expressing concern about you, it's worth adding their useful impressions to yours. Often people hesitate to speak up, so by the time they're saying something, they've probably noticed multiple incidents that have fed this concern. It's a natural first reaction to be angry or resentful, but your reaction won't change the content of what they're seeing.
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