Living With Mild Cognitive Impairment

How to maximize brain health and reduce the risk of dementia

Memory Changes

What's normal and what's not?

“I’m terrible with remembering names.” “I get stuck for words that I want – even simple ones.” “I get so distracted, sometimes I don’t get around to finishing things I’ve started.”

If you have reached your 40th birthday or beyond, chances are you have noticed changes in your memory or other thinking abilities. You may readily identify with some of the comments above, or you may have noticed different kinds of changes.

What many people want to know is whether the particular changes they’ve noticed are normal or whether they may be experiencing early signs of mild cognitive impairment.

So, what is normal?

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It’s really important to put memory changes into context. If you look carefully around you, you’ll notice that no one’s memory is perfect, regardless of age. I just need to look as far as my school-age kids, who have recently forgotten where they left a lunch box that day and the name of a new swimming instructor immediately after coming out of the pool. Not even counting “motivated” forgetting, like finishing an agreed-upon chore, it’s easy to see that having a less-than-perfect memory is pretty normal.

We know from decades of research that people tend to notice more changes in their memory as they grow older. Some of the most common memory mistakes are:

  • Not remembering the name of an acquaintance when you run into him or her unexpectedly
  • Walking into a room and not knowing why you are there
  • Forgetting the name of someone you just met
  • Misplacing your keys, wallet, mobile phone, etc.
  • Forgetting to do something you meant to do, such as filling up the car with gas on your way home

These are called “normal” memory mistakes because they happen to people with perfectly healthy brains. In particular, they are no cause for concern if they happen to you only now and then, and don’t have really serious consequences – like having to call a locksmith to re-key your house on a regular basis. Usually, the culprits are harmless things like your age, being distracted, or the fact that you were doing something outside of your regular routine.

What’s not normal?

Of course, not all memory changes are “normal.” Any of the following may suggest that something more serious is happening:

  • Repeating comments, questions, or jokes on a regular basis
  • Getting lost in familiar places such as your own neighborhood
  • Forgetting important or meaningful events soon after they happen
  • Having other people mention memory mistakes you’ve made that you are not aware of
  • Feeling the need to give up activities, hobbies, or visiting with people because your memory problems get in the way
  • Experiencing serious consequences to your memory problems, like leaving pots on the stove to burn or forgetting to pick up your grandkids from school

What to do

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these more significant problems, there is no need to panic. There is a chance they are related to treatable conditions like vitamin or thyroid deficiencies, or to situations that will resolve on their own, such as a stressful day or a poor night’s sleep. If so, your memory is likely to improve once these are managed. A trip to your doctor is the first step in sorting out whether your memory changes may be related to normal aging, mild cognitive impairment, or something else.

The good news is that, regardless of the cause of mild memory changes, there is accumulating evidence that plenty that can be done to maximize your brain health and minimize the risk of future memory decline. This will be the topic of future postings on this blog. First, though, we will provide more information about what exactly MCI is. In upcoming postings, Dr. Anderson and Dr. Murphy will share findings from research and clinical practice to provide the latest information about how MCI is defined and how it is diagnosed.

Dr. Troyer is the Professional Practice Chief of Psychology and Program Director of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health at Baycrest and Assistant Professor of Psychology at University of Toronto.

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