When to worry about memory loss

Did you forget a name? Lose track of your keys? Or draw a blank on why you walked into the dining room?

Some of this is normal memory loss, or mild cognitive decline. It often comes with getting older, and you probably don’t need to be worried, says neuropsychologist Pamela Dean, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Dean and Joel Eppig, a clinical neurology postdoctoral fellow, recently held a seminar on memory loss for UW retirees and offered information everybody could use.

About one-third of healthy older adults are concerned about their memory, they say. “We often walk into the middle of the room and go, why did I just walk in here?” says Dean. But don’t worry, “It’s actually an attention lapse.”

But, if you discover the dinner plates in the living room, or you are losing the meaning of common words or feeling newly suspicious of trusted friends, those are reasons to be concerned. Memory is like a filing cabinet—information comes in through sight, sound and smell and gets stored to be retrieved at another time, says Dean. But things like hearing and vision loss, sleep apnea or sleep deprivation, depression, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain and brain injury can get in the way of that filing cabinet. So can mental-health issues like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. “And health and lifestyle factors have a huge, huge impact on your thinking abilities,” says Eppig. Poor nutrition, low physical activity, chronic stress and consumption of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis can harm memory. Through lifestyle changes, memory can be improved. “It’s never too late to start thinking about these things,” says Eppig. In addition to healthier behaviors, social engagement is really important for optimizing brain health.

When do you see your doctor? “When forgetfulness routinely impacts daily life,” says Eppig. If you are forgetting to take your medications or pay your bills, if you are feeling confusion or experiencing changes in your ability to read, consider talking with a primary care physician. They can do a brief cognitive screen. After that, a more in-depth assessment can take place. A full neuropsychological evaluation can be used as a baseline or can find red flags.