Are Memory Lapses a Sign of Dementia?

Senior man shopping at grocery store trying to remember what it is he's supposed to get

Molly and her husband, Stan, were taking a leisurely evening stroll through their neighborhood. As they approached a woman who lived in the neightborhood, Molly was ready to say hello, when she realized she couldn’t remember the woman’s name.

Aaron was chatting with a coworker about a recent television show. When the coworker asked the name of the show, Aaron couldn’t remember.

Karen was making a cake for her daughter when she realized there were no eggs in the house. She quickly grabbed her purse and ran to the store, just blocks away. When she got there, she couldn’t remember why she was there.

Most of us have had experiences similar to the ones listed above. Should they be a cause for alarm? Do these episodes mean we’re developing Alzheimer’s? Probably not. Memory lapses happen to people of all ages. Everyone experiences occasional episodes of forgetfulness. A poll taken by Trending Machine discovered that millennials are more likely than baby boomers to forget what day it is or where they put their car keys. Overall, according to the survey, 39 percent of respondents had forgotten or misplaced something in the past week.

Such episodes may increase when a person is under stress, ill, tired, or suffering from overload. These causes of memory loss are usually temporary and completely treatable. Treatable forms of memory loss also include those caused by adverse drug reactions, malnutrition and dehydration.

Worrying about our memory may actually be causing memory loss – stress is a notorious memory inhibitor. A study from Notre Dame University discovered that the simple act of passing through a doorway can trigger forgetfulness. “Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,” explains Gabriel Radvansky, who led the study.

You may have heard an older person quip, “I can’t remember things because my brain is just too full.” As it turns out, this statement, often said in jest, might actually be true. Research led by Dr. Michael Ramscar of the University of Tübingen in Germany demonstrated that the “full brain” of seniors is the most common cause of slower memory and slower performance on certain memory-related tests. The study team put computers to the test by loading them with information to simulate the increased knowledge of human seniors. When the computer sorted through a small amount of information, its performance on cognitive tests resembled that of younger humans. But, says Dr. Ramscar, “When the same computer was exposed to the experiences we might encounter over a lifetime, its performance looked like that of an older adult. Often it was slower, not because processing capacity had declined. Rather, increased ‘experience’ had caused the computer’s database to grow, giving it more data to process—which takes time.”

Of course, not all memory loss is benign. It’s important to know the signs that might indicate a problem. According to the National Institute on Aging, these are some symptoms that indicate that a person should consult their healthcare provider:

  • Asking the same question over and over
  • Becoming lost in places that are familiar
  • Not being able to follow directions
  • Becoming more confused about time, people and places
  • Neglecting personal safety, hygiene and nutrition
  • Loss of reasoning or the ability to understand why and how
  • Loss of critical thinking skills or the ability to solve problems
  • Difficulties with communication
  • Difficulty reading and writing
  • Social withdrawal

These symptoms might indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory loss. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a neurologist or other memory expert to see what may be causing the problem.

But for most of us who are experiencing normal age-related changes of memory, we should take these words of Dr. Ramscar to heart: “The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they simply know more.”