Is Your Memory Normal?
Before you diagnose
yourself with Alzheimer's disease, take heart: Experts say
some memory lapses are actually normal.
They say that memory is the second thing to go
as you get older. So what's the first? Umm, I forgot! And
actually, by the time you reach the end of this story, you may
remember only a fraction of it. Not to worry, you're not
Experts say that mild memory loss is perfectly
normal -- especially as we age. That's right, if you sometimes
forget simple things, you're not necessarily developing
Alzheimer's disease. There is a gang of people walking around
just like you who occasionally misplace their keys, have that
deer-in-headlights look as they search for their cars in
parking lots, and can't recall the name of one new person they
met at their last office party -- yes, the one from last
night. And there's a reason for those character-themed floors
coupled with the happy-go-lucky music in Disney amusement park
"If we have forgotten an appointment, we begin
thinking, 'Uh oh, is this the first sign of Alzheimer's
disease?' and we become much more conscious, and it gets kind
of a disproportionate amount of attention when it really may
be something quite benign," Stuart Zola, PhD, professor of
psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory School of
Medicine and director of Yerkes National Primate Facility in
Atlanta tells WebMD.
Memory is the ability to normally recall the
facts and events of our lives, and this takes place in three
- Stage 1: Encoding. This is when a person takes
- Stage 2: Consolidation. This is when the brain
takes the information it encodes and processes it so that it
gets stored in certain areas of the brain.
- Stage 3: Retrieval. When a person recalls stored
information in the brain.
But differentiating between normal memory loss
and Alzheimer's disease can be puzzling for a layman; the kind
of memory that is affected in day-to-day situations is also
the kind affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Time: Memory's Worst Enemy
Fear not, memory loss and brain aging are a
natural part of getting older. "It is often the case that
people will start to report in their 50s that they think their
memories are slipping," says Zola, a research career scientist
who has dedicated his work to memory function. "They seem to
be consciously aware of that because they have to use more
kinds of reminders or more kinds of strategies to remember
But memory loss can happen even before we hit
our 50s. Many people even in their 20s and 30s have forgotten
a name or an appointment date or some fact that was on the
"tip of their tongue." Memory is tricky, and time is its worst
enemy, says Zola. In fact, shortly after taking in
information, memory traces begin to deteriorate, he explains.
"Some things begin to fade right away, other things fade less
quickly, and they're a bunch of different forgetting curves
with different rates of forgetting depending the nature of the
material, depending on how important it is for you, depending
on your stress level, depending on ... all of the things that
can affect memory."
If you've ever gotten into heated debate with
someone about how a past event or experience transpired,
there's a likely reason. You may think you have a vivid
memory of an experience, but studies show that after awhile,
people probably don't remember events as they actually
happened. Memory distortion -- also a side effect of father
time -- explains this. This is the phenomenon where as time
passes our ability to accurately recall events becomes
diminished -- and the longer the period of time that passes
between the event and trying to recall it, the greater the
chance we're going to have some memory distortions and
forgetting. Sometimes time distortion causes us to forget the
event totally, Zola explains.
Other Causes of Memory Loss
But even if you think your slips of the
old noggin aren't normal, there could be other reasons for it
short of Alzheimer's disease, including:
- Stress and anxiety
- Metabolic diseases such as thyroid gland diseases,
diabetes, and lung, liver, or kidney failure
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency
- Drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter
The good news is, causes of memory loss from
many of these conditions are normally reversible. Zola says
depression and stress are the most common reasons for
temporary memory problems.
"If your encoding isn't good, you're not going
to get the information in properly, and so you're going to
have difficulty retrieving it because it isn't there in good
form to retrieve. So that's the kind of memory problem
associated with depression, or with attention deficit
disorder, as its name implies, you have trouble paying
attention and focusing."
Stress affects the way the brain processes
memory, Zola tells WebMD. "So it's not so surprising that you
have memory problems often during very stressful states
because part of the brain is not engaged in the way it needs
to ordinarily be in order to have good memory."
Use It or Lose It
Use It or Lose It
No matter how "normal" memory lapses may be,
let's face it, that doesn't make them any less frustrating.
Experts agree that the best way to keep your brain fit is to
keep using it.
"People should realize that they have more
control than they think, that one-third [of memory loss] is
genetics, that means we have the potential to influence a
large component of our brain aging," Gary Small, MD, author of
The Memory Bible: An innovative Strategy for Keeping Your
Brain Young, and director of the Memory and Aging Research
Center at the UCLA psychiatric institute tells WebMD. "The
sooner we get started, the sooner we're going to benefit from
Small emphasizes four things in his books to
slow down brain aging: mental activity, physical fitness,
stress reduction, and healthy diet. "People who eat too much
are at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol,
diabetes, and other conditions that increase their risk for
small strokes in the brain. Secondly, you want to have a diet
that's rich in antioxidants." Small says antioxidants help
protect brain cells and exercise helps with overall health.
Staying intellectually and socially engaged
are "probably the most important things you can do
to help extend and maintain your cognitive abilities for a
longer period of time in life," Zola says. Challenging oneself
by learning new things, reading, and taking up hobbies keep
the brain active and strong for the long haul.
Some other things you can do to improve memory
- Focus your attention. Forgetfulness may indicate
that you have too much on your mind. Slow down and focus on
the task at hand. Small says multitasking and not paying
attention are some of the biggest causes of forgetfulness,
especially in younger people.
- Reduce stress. Stress can endanger the brain
areas involved with memory processing and impair memory.
- Choose to snooze. Zola says sleep is important
because fatigue can affect memory and concentration in any
- Structure your environment. Use calendars and
clocks, lists and notes, and write down daily activities on
a planner or use an electric organizer. Store easy-to-lose
items in the same place each time after using them. Park
your car in the same place at the office each day.
- Try memory tricks. To remember a person's name,
repeat it several times after being introduced. Use the same
personal identification number (PIN) for all of your
accounts if necessary.
When to See a Doctor
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive condition
that damages areas of the brain involved in memory,
intelligence, judgment, language, and behavior. While there is
no definitive way to pinpoint an Alzheimer's brain -- short of
autopsy -- there are some diagnostic ways doctors distinguish
normal memory loss from that which should raise concern.
Normal forgetfulness includes:
- Forgetting parts of an experience
- Forgetting where you park the car
- Forgetting events from the distant past
- Forgetting a person's name, but remembering it later
While research shows that up to half of people
over age 50 have mild forgetfulness linked to age-associated
memory impairment, there are signs when more serious memory
conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, are happening,
- Forgetting an experience
- Forgetting how to drive a car or read a clock
- Forgetting recent events
- Forgetting ever having known a particular person
- Loss of function, confusion, or decreasing alertness
- Symptoms become more frequent or severe
Still confused? Zola sums it up. "The kind of
rule of thumb that's kind of whimsical in a sense but
clinicians often use is, if you're worried about [your
memory], it's probably not that serious, but if your friends
and relatives are worried about it, then it probably is more