Losing your ability to think and remember is pretty scary. We know the risk of dementia increases with age. But if you have memory lapses, you probably needn't worry. There are pretty clear differences between signs of dementia and age-related memory loss.
After age 50, it's quite common to have trouble remembering the names of people, places and things quickly, says Dr. Kirk Daffner, chief of the division of cognitive and behavioral neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
The brain ages just like the rest of the body. Certain parts shrink, especially areas in the brain that are important to learning, memory and planning. Changes in brain cells can affect communication between different regions of the brain. And blood flow can be reduced as arteries narrow. Simply put, this exquisitely complex organ just isn't functioning like it used to.
Forgetting the name of an actor in a favorite movie, for example, is nothing to worry about. But if you forget the plot of the movie or don't remember even seeing it, that's far more concerning, Daffner says.
When you forget entire experiences, he says, that's "a red flag that something more serious may be involved." Forgetting how to operate a familiar object like a microwave oven or forgetting how to drive to the house of a friend you've visited many times before can also be signs something is wrong.
But even then, Daffner says, people shouldn't panic. There are many things that can cause confusion and memory loss, including health problems like sleep apnea, high blood pressure, or depression, as well as medications like antidepressants. Even over-the-counter remedies like antihistamines can contribute to memory loss.
You don't have to figure this out on your own. Daffner suggests going to your doctor to check on medications, health problems and other issues that could be affecting memory.
And the best defense against memory loss is to try to prevent it by building up your brain's cognitive reserve, Daffner says.
"Read books, go to movies that challenge, take on new hobbies or activities that force one to think in novel ways," he says. In other words, keep your brain busy and working. And get physically active, Daffner says, because exercise is a known brain booster.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, as people age, the risk of dementia increases. And it can be frustrating trying to figure out if memory loss is because of dementia or just normal glitches. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports that there are actually pretty clear differences.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: When my memory fails me, it's usually with names, that great restaurant I liked, the actor in that old movie. I'll go through the alphabet - A, B, C - trying to remember. Turns out I'm not alone, says Harvard Medical School neurologist Kirk Daffner.
KIRK DAFFNER: The speed at which we can retrieve information, the number of things that we can keep in mind at the same time, these things are more difficult.
NEIGHMOND: At around age 50, people might start to notice they're forgetting things. And lots of people do what I do, says Daffner - go through the alphabet for help. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. The fact is the brain ages just like the rest of the body. It can literally shrink. Brain cells don't communicate as well. Blood flow can diminish. Bottom line - this exquisitely complex organ just isn't functioning like it used to. But Daffner says forgetting the name of an actor is a lot different than this.
DAFFNER: It's far more concerning if when reminded of a movie that we've seen not remembering anything about the plot or not remembering that you even went to the movies.
NEIGHMOND: So it's not such a problem if you forget little bits of things. But it could be a problem if you forget entire experiences - how to operate a familiar object like a microwave or how to drive to a friend's house where you've been many times before.
DAFFNER: People who get lost in very familiar places, that's a red flag that something more serious may be involved.
NEIGHMOND: Even then, he says, people shouldn't panic. There are many things that can cause confusion and memory loss - health problems like sleep apnea, high blood pressure or depression, medications like antidepressants, even over-the-counter remedies like antihistamines. But Daffner says the best thing people can do is prevention. Build up your brain's reserve to combat aging.
DAFFNER: Read books. Go to movies that challenge. Take on new hobbies or activities that force one to think in novel ways.
NEIGHMOND: Keep your brain busy and working and get physically active. Exercise is a known brain booster. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.