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Normal Aging or Memory Loss? Learn the First Signs to Look For

memory loss Oct 11, 2022
Retired man with memory impairment

So, you're getting older and you're experiencing changes in your memory. You may experience more forgetfulness, words getting stuck on the tip of your tongue or losing things you otherwise were able to keep track of with ease.

Now you're let wondering: Is it normal? Will it continue to get worse? If you're like most, you may begin to fear that each time you lose your glasses, your keys or misplace your wallet that you will soon begin to lose yourself as well. Or you may wonder if it's a sign of something more, especially if you have a family history of dementia.

You're not alone. As a memory health coach, this is one of the most common questions I get each week. Is it normal aging or memory loss?

The answer depends.

In this article, you will learn:

  • Typical age-related changes to your memory 
  • Normal aging versus dementia
  • What you need to know about memory impairment 
  • What to do next

Download the FREE Get Your Memory Back Starter Guide

Typical age associated changes to your memory

As you get older, you may experience occasional lapses in your short-term memory, or changes in your memory and focus. These changes occur as a result of physiological changes in your brain as you age. It may take longer to learn how to do something new, or you may experience minor changes in your ability to stay focused.

Age associated memory changes may show up as occasional forgetfulness, like misplacing your glasses or forgetting the name of a new acquaintance. Typically, age associated memory lapses are temporary and trivial, like misplacing an item and finding it a few moments later or occasionally taking longer to find the words you want to say.

For some, these minor changes in memory can also be attributed to other factors in life beyond age. The way you eat, sleep, stress and move your body can all impact your cognitive function. If you're stressed, going through a tough time, experiencing poor sleep, or a big life transition, it can impact your memory function. 

For this reason, it's important to exercise awareness when it comes to your memory and thinking. This will allow you to identify any big changes as they happen.

Tracking your memory concerns

Awareness is the key to recognizing significant signs of a memory impairment. Staying in touch with your concerns allows you to observe patterns and changes in your cognitive function.

Start by asking yourself how often your memory concerns show up. Are you experiencing memory lapses daily? Are words hard to find in multiple conversations each day? How many times per week?

Be specific. Next, get clear on what you're experiencing. From a place of curiosity rather than judgment, observe what signs and symptoms you're experiencing.

Here are some common changes you may notice:

  • Difficulty word finding
  • Forgetfulness
  • Misplacing items
  • Foggy or slowed thinking
  • Repeating yourself in conversation
  • Taking longer to gather thoughts
  • Trouble remembering names 

Symptoms of memory loss can vary greatly from person to person. Channeling awareness of these changes allows you to monitor the frequency and severity of these events. In other words, how much are these memory lapse moments impacting your life?

It's important to note that there are many causes for short term memory loss, not all of which are an impairment or signs of dementia. Short term memory loss can show up as a side-effect of certain medications, as the result of increased stress or from sleep deprivation.

Any concerns related to aging memory are worth bringing to your physician's attention, especially if these changes occurred suddenly, as there could be a medical condition or other explanation for the onset of your symptoms.

Tracking your concerns will provide you with data you need to identify patterns related to those or other causes and to share specific details with your doctor.

Download the FREE Get Your Memory Back Starter Guide

Addressing memory concerns

As stated above, minor forgetfulness is not anything to fear. However, if it is impacting your daily life, causing you to second guess yourself and leading to self-doubt, it is still something worth addressing. In fact, you shouldn't wait for a wakeup call. As a memory health coach, this is exactly what I help my clients with: addressing your memory concerns so you can remain present and thrive in the life you've worked so hard to create without fear of memory loss interrupting your plans.

So many people live in fear of dementia. They battle brain fog; they have difficulty focusing and it takes a toll on their energy. Yet so much of this is preventable! With the right lifestyle changes and memory supports you can think clearer, protect your mental energy, and be happier all while reducing your risk of decline or disease.

Memory changes don't have to reach a certain level of severity to significantly impact your confidence. It's truly never too early or too late to start taking care of your memory health. My clients report peace of mind knowing that they are doing everything in their power to support their recall now and protect their memory as they age. If you're ready to learn how to get your memory back, strengthen it and keep it healthy for a lifetime, use the link here to schedule a free call to learn more about how the Memory Confidence Method™ can help you.

Normal aging versus dementia

 So, how do signs of normal aging stack up against early signs of dementia? While there is some overlap in memory challenges, there are also marked differences that set them apart. 

Here are some key differences between normal aging versus dementia:

  • Not being able to remember details of a movie you watched 6 months ago versus not recalling details from a conversation that occurred an hour ago
  • Difficulty recalling the name of an acquaintance versus unable to identify a family member or close friend
  • Misplacing things temporarily versus losing items frequently
  • Occasional, trivial forgetfulness versus forgetting important things
  • Can live independently versus needs help to do activities of daily living
  • Not putting things away versus putting things away in odd places misplaced car keys in the freezer
  • Able to learn new skills versus difficulty managing current skills like how to operate a familiar appliance
  • Occasional changes in mood versus unpredictable, inappropriate changes or outbursts
  • Changes in interests versus apathy or lack of interest in anything
  • Awareness of subtle memory changes versus unaware of cognitive challenges

Awareness of your symptoms is a positive sign, as it means you're in a critical window of tackling these challenges with the right strategies and lifestyle changes. The earlier you make changes, the more progress and protection you will have.

Dementia is not a normal part of aging

Dementia is often mistaken as a normal part of the aging process. However, memory loss and dementia are not a normal part of aging. It's important to understand the differences and to remain vigilant in assessing your cognitive health as you age. Just because you are getting older doesn't mean you will develop dementia.

Likewise, dementia does not only occur in older people. Early onset dementia can show up earlier in your life. Researchers also believe that changes from dementia begin in the brain 10-20 years before you ever experience signs or symptoms of cognitive decline. 

Memory impairment

If you're not experiencing signs of dementia but you are demonstrating clear and persistent changes in your memory and thinking that are impacting your daily life, you may still have a memory impairment. There are two "preclinical" stages of memory and cognitive change that can provide you with a name for what you're experiencing.

Stages of memory impairment

1. Subjective Memory Impairment (SMI) or Subjective Cognitive Decline (SCD)

2. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

Let's discuss what they look and feel like...

Subjective Memory Impairment

Subjective memory impairment (SMI) refers to the self-reported worsening in memory or thinking. In a subjective stage, you are able to identify those subtle yet present memory changes that those around you may not notice just yet.

These changes can feel subtle, like difficulty with word finding in conversations with friends, forgetting the details of the movie you saw a few weeks ago, increased worry about missing an upcoming appointment or event or a general sense of slow or foggy thinking, thoughts feeling less automatic, etc. This stage is critical to identify as it provides you with an opportunity for meaningful change with early interventions, staving off further cognitive decline and improving and/or resolving your symptoms.

Unfortunately, many people miss this stage by casually accepting or normalizing these changes without exploring them any further. The term 'senior moment' is a great example of this normalization. While 'senior moments' are not always worrisome they are indicators of a change. These indicators can be the first signs of a subjective memory impairment.

How does this differ from normal aging?

Though the differences may be subtle, these changes are more noticeable if you're paying attention and they are beginning to pop up more frequently. These changes may persist beyond small memory lapses and show up in 'mental blocks' when you go to pay a bill or try to learn a new card game, which can prompt a moment of panic.

Mild Cognitive Impairment

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) refers to changes in memory and thinking that go beyond 'normal aging.' People with MCI have noticeable changes in their memory and thinking, however, it is not yet impacting their ability to successfully complete activities of daily living such as managing medications and finances, driving, bathing and independently managing a household, though at times, a person with MCI may be more prone to make errors.

Changes from MCI are significant enough that friends and family, or those close to the person experiencing these cognitive changes, are now noticing that something is different. 

Symptoms of Mild Cognitive Impairment:

  • Increased difficulty with communication
  • Repeating statements and questions frequently
  • More difficulty with word finding in conversation
  • Trouble focusing and attending to tasks or interactions
  • Forgetting dates, details and events
  • Missing appointments
  • Misplacing items
  • Taking longer to complete independent tasks

These changes may prompt you to see a specialist to diagnose and/or address the problem. Currently, rates of MCI are on the rise and while 90% of doctors recognize the importance of diagnosing MCI, only 50% of those doctors reported feeling comfortable providing that diagnosis. While MCI is not dementia, it can be a precursor and it does increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's and dementia.

 Just how common are these memory conditions?

According to the CDC, the prevalence of subjective cognitive decline is about 1 in every 9 adults, or 11.7% of the population age 65 and older.

While the prevalence of mild cognitive impairment is 12-18% of people 60 or older, which climbs to about 37% by about age 85.

Additionally, those with one or more chronic diseases demonstrate a much higher incidence of cognitive decline, exhibiting 20.4% among adults aged 45 and older.

Evidence suggests that about 30-50% of those with MCI will progress to a form of dementia within 5-10 years.

These rising numbers are becoming a public health crisis with dementia rates expected to more than double by the year 2060.

What should you do if you're experiencing memory changes?

Awareness is key. Start tuning in to those subtle changes to identify when and how often they occur. Did they begin all of a sudden? Or was the onset more gradual? 

Next, bring it to your healthcare provider's attention. This is where it becomes critical to utilize forward thinking health and to advocate for your health. A physician can review your medical history and use patient questionnaires, clinical exams and brief assessments to evaluate thinking and memory function. They can also conduct any necessary labs. 

While there are not currently any medical treatments for mild cognitive impairment, research consistently supports that the right diet and lifestyle changes can positively impact function, resolve or improve memory changes and prevent further decline.

And with cognitive function and memory, the sooner you take action the better, as it becomes increasingly difficult to make meaningful changes as memory worsens.

Your memory impairment will not automatically transition to dementia over time

A memory impairment won't necessarily transition into dementia. It could worsen or it could stay the same. However, what you do next matters. Typically, memory impairment does not resolve without direct action. Changes in memory that are left unaddressed are more likely to progress from a subtle or mild problem to a serious health issue. Sometimes a little targeted support is all you need to see improvements.

If you're experiencing memory changes and you're ready to make a change, there is so much we can do to restore clear thinking and memory confidence. I'd love to support you on your journey. Use this link to save your spot on my schedule for a free call to get started.


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Meet the Coach

Hey there! I'm Francine, a speech-language pathologist turned memory health coach with a passion for helping you overcome your memory problems.

In my practice, I help women trade memory problems for confidence and clarity everyday so they can think clearly and remember easily, without constant self-doubt weighing them down. 

If you're struggling with poor recall and foggy thinking, you're in the right place and I want to help you!


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