DEAR MAYO CLINIC: As his caregiver, how can I tell if my father’s memory loss is just a natural part of aging, or if it’s the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease? At what point should I take him to be seen by a physician?
ANSWER: In many people, memory becomes less efficient with age. Beyond aging, other factors like taking certain medications or underlying health problems can affect memory, too. Memory lapses become a concern when they start to affect important areas or details of a person’s life that they would typically remember. If you are worried about your father’s memory loss, make an appointment for him to see his doctor.
As people age, the number of cells, or neurons, in the brain decreases. That can make it harder to learn new things or remember familiar words. Older adults may have difficulty coming up with names of acquaintances, for example, or they may have trouble finding their reading glasses or car keys. Some people become concerned that those memory lapses could signal the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. That is rarely the case.
The type of forgetfulness that is worrisome involves forgetting information that a person formerly would always have remembered. For example, a favorite social event gets missed, like a tee time for a weekly golf game. Or perhaps an appointment that an individual would usually make a priority goes unnoticed, like a dental checkup. If this happens once in a while, it probably is not a problem. If a person starts to have trouble making these connections regularly, then it is time to see a doctor.
The forgetfulness could be a symptom of mild cognitive impairment. In addition to lapses in memory, this condition also may include problems with language, thinking and judgment. For example, someone with mild cognitive impairment might occasionally have trouble finding their way around familiar places. They may lose their train of thought often or have trouble following a conversation.