It is true that some of us get more forgetful as we age. It may take longer to learn new things, remember certain words, or find our glasses. These changes are often signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.
See your doctor if you’re worried about your forgetfulness. Tell him or her about your concerns. Be sure to make a follow-up appointment to check your memory in the next 6 months to a year. If you think you might forget, ask a family member, friend, or the doctor’s office to remind you.
What can I do about mild forgetfulness?
You can do many things to help keep your memory sharp and stay alert. Look at the list below for some helpful ideas.
Here are 9 ways to help your memory:
- Learn a new skill.
- Volunteer in your community, at a school, or at your place of worship.
- Spend time with friends and family.
- Use memory tools such as big calendars, to-do lists, and notes to yourself.
- Put your wallet or purse, keys, and glasses in the same place each day.
- Get lots of rest.
- Exercise and eat well.
- Don’t drink a lot of alcohol.
- Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time.
Serious Memory Problems: 5 Types
Serious memory problems make it hard to do everyday things. For example, you may find it hard to drive, shop, or even talk with a friend. Signs of serious memory problems may include:
- asking the same questions over and over again
- getting lost in places you know well
- not being able to follow directions
- becoming more confused about time, people, and places
- not taking care of yourself—eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe
What can I do about serious memory problems?
See your doctor if you are having any of the problems listed above. It’s important to find out what might be causing a serious memory problem. Once you know the cause, you can get the right treatment.
Serious memory problems—causes and treatments
Many things can cause serious memory problems, such as blood clots, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Read below to learn more about causes and treatments of serious memory problems.
1. Medical conditions
Certain medical conditions can cause serious memory problems. These problems should go away once you get treatment. Some medical conditions that may cause memory problems are:
- bad reaction to certain medicines.
- not eating enough healthy foods, or too few vitamins and minerals in your body
- drinking too much alcohol
- blood clots or tumors in the brain
- head injury, such as a concussion from a fall or accident
- thyroid, kidney, or liver problems
Treatment for medical conditions
These medical conditions are serious. See your doctor for treatment.
2. Emotional problems
Some emotional problems in older people can cause serious memory problems. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored can cause you to be confused and forgetful.
Treatment for emotional problems
- You may need to see a doctor or counselor for treatment. Once you get help, your memory problems should get better.
- Being active, spending more time with family and friends, and learning new skills also can help you feel better and improve your memory.
3. Mild Cognitive Impairment
MCI (Pronounced mild kog-ni-tiv im-pair-ment) happens to some people when they grow older and have more memory problems than other people their age. This condition is called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. People with MCI can take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI memory problems may include:
- losing things often
- forgetting to go to events and appointments
- having more trouble coming up with words than other people of the same age
Your doctor can do thinking, memory, and language tests to see if you have MCI. He or she also may suggest that you see a specialist for more tests. Because MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s really important to see your doctor or specialist every 6 to 12 months. See below for more about Alzheimer’s disease.
Treatment for MCI
- At this time, there is no proven treatment for MCI. Your doctor can check to see if you have any changes in your memory or thinking skills over time.
- You may want to try to keep your memory sharp. The list in the previous section suggests some ways to help your memory.
4. Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease (pronounced Allz-high-merz duh-zeez) causes serious memory problems. The signs of Alzheimer’s disease begin slowly and get worse over time. This is because changes in the brain cause large numbers of brain cells to die.
It may look like simple forgetfulness at first, but over time, people with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble thinking clearly. They find it hard to do everyday things like shopping, driving, and cooking. As the illness gets worse, people with Alzheimer’s disease may need someone to take care of all their needs at home or in a nursing home. These needs may include feeding, bathing, and dressing.
Treatment for Alzheimer’s disease
- Taking certain medicines can help a person in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These medicines can keep symptoms, such as memory loss, from getting worse for a time. The medicines can have side effects and may not work for everyone. Talk with your doctor about side effects or other concerns you may have.
- Other medicines can help if you are worried, depressed, or having problems sleeping.
5. Vascular Dementia
Many people have never heard of vascular dementia (pronounced vas-kue-ler duh-men-shuh). Like Alzheimer’s disease, it is a medical condition that causes serious memory problems. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, signs of vascular dementia may appear suddenly. This is because the memory loss and confusion are caused by small strokes or changes in the blood supply to the brain. If the strokes stop, you may get better or stay the same for a long time. If you have more strokes, you may get worse.
Treatment for vascular dementia
You can take steps to lower your chances of having more strokes. These steps include:
- Control your high blood pressure.
- Treat your high cholesterol.
- Take care of your diabetes.
- Stop smoking.
What Can I Do If My Memory Worries Me?
See your doctor. If your doctor thinks your memory problems are serious, you may need to have a complete health check-up. The doctor will review your medicines and may test your blood and urine. You also may need to take tests that check your memory, problem solving, counting, and language skills.
In addition, the doctor may suggest a brain scan. Pictures from the scan can show normal and problem areas in the brain. Once the doctor finds out what is causing your memory problems, ask about the best treatment for you.
What can family members do to help?
If your family member or friend has a serious memory problem, you can help the person live as normal a life as possible. You can help the person stay active, go places, and keep up everyday routines. You can remind the person of the time of day, where he or she lives, and what is happening at home and in the world. You also can help the person remember to take medicine or visit the doctor.
Some families use the following things to help with memory problems:
- big calendars to highlight important dates and events
- lists of the plans for each day
- notes about safety in the home
- written directions for using common household items
(most people with Alzheimer’s disease can still read)
- There are differences between normal forgetfulness and more serious memory problems.
- It’s important to understand the causes of memory problems and how they can be treated.
- You can get help for mild and serious memory problems.
Understanding the memory issues described in this article will help you ask the right questions. See your doctor if you are still worried about your memory. It’s important to find out what is causing your memory problems.
Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
P.O. Box 8250
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8250
The Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center offers information on diagnosis, treatment, patient care, caregiver needs, long-term care, and research related to Alzheimer’s disease. Staff can refer you to local and national resources. The Center is a service of the National Institute on Aging, part of the Federal Government’s National Institutes of Health.
NIH National Institute on Aging: The Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center