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Forgetfulness or Dementia? How to Recognize the Difference

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Dementia is a catchall term for the symptoms of diseases and conditions that cause progressive damage to the brain. As people age, they worry that small changes in their thinking processes and memory point to serious problems rather than the normal effects of time on mental function. When you know how to differentiate between what’s normal and what’s not, you can make informed decisions about your health.

Diseases that cause dementia

The best-known, most-common of the dementia-related diseases is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s named for the physician who, in 1906, first spotted changes in the brain tissue of a woman who showed behavioral problems, along with losses in memory and language skills, before she died. Since then, science has made many discoveries about this currently incurable disease, but we still lack definitive evidence about how and why it begins and who’s at greatest risk for it.

Along with Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that cause dementia, some prescription medicines interfere with memory, as can minor head injuries, vitamin B-12 deficiencies, an underactive thyroid, stress and other emotional conditions, and brain tumors or infections that affect brain tissue. That’s a pretty wide range of possible causes, so it’s essential to rule out other causes, including normal aging, before jumping to conclusions.

All in the details

If you’re having trouble remembering what happened during a conversation, event, or trip from a year ago, these things happen to everyone, and they can increase in frequency as we get older. If you can’t remember what you said or where you went an hour ago, however, that’s not a normal reaction.

Names and people

You meet a new person and can’t remember their name, or you’re trying to remember the name of an actor or musician from a favorite film or band. An hour after you wanted to use the information, it pops into your head. These tip-of-the-tongue-but-can’t-remember situations are common, and the more emphasis you put on trying to overcome them, the more likely you are to stress yourself out over nothing. But if your niece shows up at your front door and you can’t remember her name, or you don’t recognize your sibling at a family function, that’s cause for concern.

Oops, I forgot

It’s normal to have an occasional lapse of memory about something you wanted or needed to do. Everyone’s forgotten an appointment or birthday, or almost missed paying a bill. If these types of gaps in memory become a common occurrence, however, that’s a situation you should talk over with your doctor.

The word is…

You wrack your brain for the right word to describe something, or the perfect synonym for something you’ve seen. Like the name that won’t pop up immediately but does so later on, this is a normal event that can become more predictable when you’re tired or if you’ve had an adult beverage. But if you find yourself unable to remember the names of common objects and frequently substituting other, often made-up terms for them, you’re experiencing symptoms outside the realm of normalcy.

Worries, no worries

Just as unpleasant people often fail to recognize their own personality flaws, people with progressive memory loss typically lack the ability to realize that they have a problem. If you’re worried about your memory but everyone else in your family thinks of you as the person who always remembers details, you’re probably in the clear.

It’s normal to worry about memory loss as you get older. But it’s also normal to forget a whole range of words, names, faces, commitments, and more. Keep watch on exactly the sorts of things you’re forgetting—and if you’re concerned know that we’re here to help.

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