It's totally normal to misplace your wallet or forget the names of your kids' friends every so often. But while some memory lapses are no big deal, others could signal a more chronic condition—namely, dementia, a loss of cognitive abilities that includes Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal disorders, and Lewy body dementia.
"Older individuals frequently report difficulties with short-term memory, such as recalling a recently learned name or why they entered a room," says Babak Tousi, MD, a geriatrician at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Ohio. "But healthy older adults can generally retrieve this previously learned information… which suggests that the information has been stored successfully."
That's not necessarily the case with people who have dementia, however. For example, take Alzheimer's disease, (which accounts for 60% to 80% of all cases of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association). People with Alzheimer's have difficulty learning new information, even when they're reminded of it over and over again, says Dr. Tousi. "This suggests that the information hasn't been retained," he says.
Dementia is primarily caused by damage to brain cells, which then have trouble "communicating" with each other. While it's possible for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's to notice their memory loss, they tend to become less aware of their condition as it progresses, he says. "Some may know there is a problem but not be aware of the extent of it," says Dr. Tousi.
If you suspect that you (or someone you know) has dementia, talk to your doctor right away. Although there's no cure for the condition, there are medications available that can help treat the symptoms. Here are a few signs and symptoms to be aware of.
You can't remember having a conversation with someone
In the beginning stages of the disease, a person's long-term memory can be as sharp as ever—it's their short-term memory that will start to decline. People with dementia may have trouble remembering recent events, like having a conversation earlier that morning or meeting a person they were just introduced to, says Dr. Tousi. As the disease progresses, however, their long-term memory may start to fade, too, and even distant memories can be forgotten, he says.
Everyday tasks are becoming increasingly difficult
People with dementia often have trouble with skills like problem solving and planning, says Dr. Tousi, which can make it hard for them to balance a checkbook or keep track of their bills. Even tasks that were once relatively simple for them in the past—like organizing an activity for their church—can become increasingly challenging, he says.
You misplace objects
Leaving your keys in your pocket is (almost certainly) no big deal—but leaving your keys in a location like the freezer is a possible sign of dementia. What's more, whereas a person without dementia might be able to retrace their steps to find the missing object (i.e., "I must have left my keys in my pants!"), people who are cognitively impaired aren't generally able to do so.
You're feeling unmotivated
Anyone can feel a little burned out sometimes, but people with Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal disorders, and Lewy body dementia tend to withdraw from even their favorite hobbies and activities. "A loss of initiative and lack of motivation are common and are frequently mistaken for depression," says Dr. Tousi.
You have trouble maintaining a conversation with people
People with Alzheimer's often struggle with language and may have trouble coming up with the right words to use in a conversation. "They may feel as though a word is on the tip of their tongue, use incorrect words, or talk around their inability to retrieve the correct word," says Dr. Tousi.
You get lost when you're driving
Driving a car can be particularly hard for people with dementia. Not only can their driving skills become progressively worse, but they may also have trouble navigating their way home or traveling outside of their neighborhood.
You're uncharacteristically impatient
Personality changes are common in people with dementia—and oftentimes, early signs of the condition are irritability or poor impulse control, says Dr. Tousi. For example, people with frontotemporal disorders may start eating compulsively or be unable to resist the urge to touch something. Similarly, people with Alzheimer's or Lewy body disease may feel agitated or restless.
You don't trust people anymore
It's not unusual for people with Alzheimer's disease to become suspicious of others, even family members, and for people with Lewy body dementia to experience paranoia or delusions (i.e., false beliefs).