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Memory Lapse or Dementia? 5 Clues to Help Tell the Difference

When are little memory slipups normal, and when should you consider seeing the doctor? A Johns Hopkins expert explains the differences in these lapses and why they occur.

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“I’m in my 50s, and like everyone else I want to prevent memory loss as I age,” says Yasar. “So every day, I try to practice what I preach to my patients—by taking steps to challenge and protect my brain.” Among Yasar’s personal strategies:

  • Exercise: “I run and swim several times a week,” she says. “To make it fun, I recently did a long-distance swim to raise money for cancer research.”
  • Reading: “I also speak Hungarian and German. I’m reading books in those languages to stimulate my brain,” she says.
  • A “no Google zone”: “My family has a rule: At the dinner table, we don’t use our phones to look things up online. Instead, we try to remember whatever it is, so our brains don’t get lazy!”

Uh-oh. You can’t find your keys. You forgot the name of your newest neighbor—again. And exactly where did you park your car at the mall, anyway?

An occasional memory slip is normal, says Johns Hopkins geriatrician Sevil Yasar, M.D., Ph.D. But as you age, these “senior moments” may leave you wondering whether you’re heading for dementia—the loss of memory and thinking skills severe enough to interfere with independent living, often due to Alzheimer’s disease or other brain changes.

“Stress, an extra-busy day, poor sleep and even some medications can interfere with making and recalling memories,” Yasar says. “And we all have moments when a name or the title of a movie is right on the tip of the tongue, but those events are different from the kinds of lapses that may be warning signs for dementia.”

Most of the time, memory lapses are nothing to worry about. “But any time you’re concerned about yourself or a loved one, it’s worth talking with your doctor,” Yasar says.

So how can you tell the difference between simple slipups and something that may be more serious? The important thing to look for is persistent change in our ability to think and function. Below are five clues. 

1. Are you losing things and just can’t figure out where they went?

We all misplace things. And yes, on a busy morning we may even put the cornflakes box in the refrigerator if we’re moving too fast. It’s normal to put things in the wrong spot, and it’s normal to catch the mistake or retrace our steps to find the keys sitting on top of today’s stack of mail.

What’s not: Being unable to figure out where lost belongings might be, putting things in more and more unusual places and starting to suspect—without evidence—that people have stolen your missing possessions.

2. Do you get lost in familiar places?

Losing the way while driving, walking or taking public transportation to a new place is normal. So is getting so absorbed in your journey (or your thoughts) that you have to reorient yourself to figure out exactly where you are.

What’s not: “Driving or walking for a long time without realizing you’re lost or completely forgetting where you are, and not asking for help in these situation could  be a sign of dementia,” Yasar says. You may also forget how you got to a new location, become easily disoriented in familiar places, or lose the ability to read a map or follow landmarks and traffic signs.

3. Do you lose track of the time, date or season?

Once in a while, we all forget what day of the week it is, but we usually remember or figure it out quickly. More troubling: not knowing what day it is, the time of day or how much time is passing—and not realizing that you’ve forgotten. Additionally, unable to remember appointments or even missing them despite putting it on the calendar or having received numerous reminders by family. These may be signs of dementia, according to Johns Hopkins experts.

4. Are your conversations getting stalled?

We all have to search for the right word from time to time. “And it’s normal for this to happen more often as we get older,” Yasar notes. What’s not: extreme difficulty remembering words, calling things and people by the wrong words or names and withdrawing socially as a result. Having more and more trouble following, joining or continuing a conversation (you may stop talking mid-thought and not know what you were going to say next) or even following plot on TV may also be a red flag for dementia risk.

5. Do memory slipups interfere with daily life?

Forgetting the name of your neighbor’s dog is normal. What’s not: No longer being able to do everyday activities the way you used to, and you now need help of your family or professionals, 

“If you used to balance your bank accounts to the penny and now you’ve lost track of where your household money is going, bills have not been paid and as a result electricity or phone service has been turned off. Similarly, you feel lost and overwhelmed making, or even worse, being unable to make, Thanksgiving pumpkin pie with your favorite longtime recipe, it may be a sign of early brain changes,” Yasar says.

And one of the biggest concerns, from a doctor’s point of view, is the issue with medication management, such as forgetting to take medications or taking them incorrectly. If you or a loved one are having issues managing medication correctly, it's time to reach out to your doctor.

 

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