Unwarranted anxiety over memory lapses

I am at the age when people begin to worry about the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It does not help that this topic keeps surfacing in conversations among age-peers in one’s family and friends and acquaintances, thus keeping it at the forefront of one’s mind. But it is easy for people who are not clinicians trained in the symptoms of these diseases to become unduly alarmed over things that are merely the effects of normal aging and not signs of serious cognitive decline. Misplacing items, being unable to recall the name of an object or an actor in a TV show or film, forgetting why one went into a room, are among the things that cause unwarranted uneasiness.

This article tries to dispel some of those concerns, by distinguishing between normal aging-associated memory loss and mild cognitive impairment. Every year about 10-15% of people with mild cognitive impairment will develop dementia.

[I]t’s true that like the rest of our body, our brain cells shrink when we get older. They also maintain fewer connections with other neurons and store less of the chemicals needed for sending messages to other neurons.

But not all memory lapses are due to age-related changes to our neurons. In many cases, the influencing factors are more trivial, including being tired, anxious, or distracted.

Our memory system is constructed in a way that some degree of forgetting is normal. This is not a flaw, but a feature. Maintaining memories is not only a drain on our metabolism, but too much unnecessary information can slow down or hamper retrieving specific memories.

Unfortunately, it’s not always up to us to decide what’s important and should be remembered. Our brain does that for us. In general, our brain prefers social information (the latest gossip), but easily discards abstract information (such as numbers).

Memory loss becomes a problem when it starts to affect your typical day-to-day living. It’s not a huge issue if you can’t remember to turn right or left. However, forgetting why you are behind the wheel, where you are meant to be going or even how to drive are not normal. These are signs something may not be right and should be investigated further.

While everyday memory lapses are not something we should unduly worry about, it is prudent to seek professional health care advice, such as from your GP, when those impairments become more marked and consistent.

While there is no cure for dementia, there are suggestions that keeping active both physically and mentally can help to stave off its arrival.


  1. says

    I think you and I are pretty close in age, and I am definitely noticing some of this. Some of it can be attributed to my not paying attention, but what is really frustrating is to lose a word I am searching for. As part of that, and even worse, is that my brain will fixate on the wrong word (often a wrong word that starts with the same letter), and any attempt to retrieve the right word draws me into that rut that holds the wrong word.

    What it feels like to me is that, when I was younger, I had 5-10 “tendrils”, that is, mental connections, by which I could retrieve a word. However, as I have aged, many of those tendrils have faded, so I only have about 3 of them left and I have to search to find the side route that gets me to them. Often, relaxing and not thinking about it lets that rut lose it strength and I’ll suddenly think of the word a few hours later.

  2. djh says

    In general, our brain prefers social information (the latest gossip), but easily discards abstract information (such as numbers)

    Probably says something deeply meaningful about my psyche that my personal experience is the exact opposite!

  3. says

    If you start having symptoms of central brain decline, that’s the scary sign. Tingly feet, changes in urination, constipation, loss of balance, difficulty swallowing -- look out for those.
    When you hit 60 its a good idea to have a baseline MRI so if you start having cognitive changes your doctors can compare.

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