Around age 40, you may start noticing you can’t recall people’s names as quickly or you forget details of phone messages you didn’t write down.
These memory slips usually aren’t cause for concern, but talk to your doctor when memory problems interfere with daily life, said Sarah Kortenkamp, Ph.D., a Marshfield Clinic neuropsychologist.
“Even if your memory problems are caused by normal aging, your primary care doctor will be able to take steps to determine your baseline so it’s easier to detect if things get worse,” she said.
Dementia: More serious memory problems
Dementia refers to cognitive decline like memory loss that’s severe enough to interfere with daily functioning.
It’s more than minor annoyances like forgetting to pick up milk at the grocery store. You may forget entire conversations you just had, avoid socializing because you can’t express yourself or do other things that are out of character.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. Proteins and plaques build up around neurons in the brain and interfere with communication between neurons. Because Alzheimer’s can’t be confirmed without examining the brain, doctors look for symptoms to determine if patients likely have the disease.
“People who have dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease may repeat questions after you just told them the answer, forget to take medications for several days in a row or forget they talked to you on the phone last night,” Kortenkamp said.
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, but medications can stabilize memory loss for up to a few years. Some patients see more benefit than others.
“It doesn’t freeze time, but patients who respond well may get more time at home and to get their affairs in order,” Kortenkamp said.
Other causes of memory loss
Your doctor will run tests to determine what’s causing your memory loss. Memory problems don’t necessarily mean you have dementia and they may be treatable.
A blood test will show if you have low vitamin B12, vitamin D or iron. Low levels of these vitamins and minerals can affect brain function. Your doctor also can check your thyroid hormone level, which can affect cognitive function if it’s too low or too high.
Certain medications and other health conditions are known to cause or contribute to memory problems, including:
- Over-the-counter sleep aids
- Pain disorders
- Depression and anxiety
- Uncontrolled high blood sugar
- Sleep apnea
Improve brain health
Although you can’t reverse effects of Alzheimer’s disease, you can take steps to improve brain health and reduce your risk of memory loss as a normal part of aging.
“Anything good for your heart is good for your brain,” Kortenkamp said.
That includes exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet and controlling diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol with your doctor’s help.
Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and fish oil supplements are known to be good for brain health. However, evidence is mixed whether eating fish or taking supplements will slow or reverse cognitive decline.
Social interaction also benefits the brain. Older adults who maintain social connections tend to do better on memory tests, Kortenkamp said.