Memory loss is an umbrella term that covers different types of forgetfulness. It can affect short or long-term memory and includes skills like remembering names, or even how to do things – like brushing your teeth.
Forgetting things from time to time is normal, especially as you age. It’s thought that 40% of people older than 65 have some age-related memory loss. But how can you tell if something more serious is going on?
Whether it’s time to wonder if this is more than normal ageing depends on how often and how significantly you forget things. This guide will help you tell the difference between normal memory lapses and ones that a doctor should explore further.
What is normal age-related memory loss?
Memory loss can happen at any age and can show up across a range of thinking skills. Some common types of forgetfulness are:
- Having a word or someone’s name on the tip of your tongue, but taking a few minutes to recall it
- Forgetting facts or events, especially ones that you haven’t thought about for a while or that happened a long time ago
- Losing your keys or forgetting an appointment
- Mixing up facts or memories, such as where an event happened
As long as your memory lapses are minor and occasional then it’s considered normal age-related memory loss. Only 1% of adults over 65 with mild memory loss go on to develop dementia.
Studies suggest our brains peak between 35-44 years. As we get older, neurons slow down, certain areas shrink, and blood flow decreases, which can slow down our ability to solve problems or remember information.
When to worry about forgetfulness?
If your memory loss is becoming a pattern or affects your ability to learn and remember new information, it’s time to speak to a doctor. This could include:
- Repeating the same questions or conversations
- Struggling to follow instructions or directions
- Getting confused about places, people, or time
- Difficulty taking care of yourself
Here's how normal age-related memory loss compares with signs that something more serious is going on.
It’s likely to be normal if you…
- Occasionally lose something, miss an appointment, or forget to pay a bill
- Forget the name of someone you don’t know very well
- Sometimes forget events, conversations, especially from a long time ago
- Are worried about your memory but other people aren’t
- Sometimes forget words
- Can still learn new information or skills, even if it takes a bit longer
- Can go about your daily life as normal
Speak to a doctor if you…
- Lose items regularly and often miss appointments or bills
- Forget the names of friends or family or are slow to recognise people
- Regularly forget events or conversations, even those that happened recently
- Are not worried about your memory but friends and family are
- Find it hard to have a conversation
- Struggle to learn new skills or information
- Can’t keep up your usual routines and forget how to do things
What can cause memory loss?
It’s important to find out what’s causing your forgetfulness because it might be reversible if treated.
Some causes of memory loss are progressive and will gradually affect you more, including the types of memory they affect. It’s helpful to get an early diagnosis for these conditions because there are medicines that can be beneficial when taken from the beginning.
Here are some of the more serious causes of memory loss:
Mild cognitive impairment
Some people experience more significant changes in their thinking, including memory, visual skills, and problem-solving. It can stay stable, improve, or worsen with time.
Strokes are caused by blood clots in the brain. They block oxygen from reaching brain cells, which can affect a broad range of cognitive and motor skills.
Memory loss can be a sign of dementia. It covers a range of conditions that affect cognitive skills, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Although Parkinson’s disease mainly affects motor skills, later stages can cause memory loss.
How can I improve my memory?
You can help keep your memory sharp at any age. Keeping your brain healthy has a lot of overlap with staying physically healthy, and includes regular exercise and a good diet.
When to speak to a doctor about memory loss
If you’re worried about your memory or people close to you have noticed changes, see a doctor.
This could include:
- Becoming more forgetful
- Having problems concentrating
- Difficulty keeping up your regular routines
- Changes to your mood
This article has been medically reviewed by Lead Livi GP, Dr Bryony Henderson.