No one likes to forget things. Whether it's a misplaced credit card or a name you can't recall, memory problems are upsetting. They can also cost you time and money. If you have had some memory issues, you may wonder — is your memory normal for your age?
Are memory problems normal?
Certain types of memory problems are very common. You have probably experienced some of these:
- Transience. If you've ever felt that things don't stick in your mind, you're probably right. If your brain held on to every bit of information, it would soon be clogged with unnecessary trivia. Instead, the brain cleans house regularly, usually getting rid of knowledge that you haven't used lately.
- Absent-mindedness. This type of memory lapse occurs when you don't pay attention. Maybe you can't remember your new neighbors' names because you were distracted when they introduced themselves. This kind of forgetfulness happens to everyone, young and old.
- Blocking. This memory lapse occurs when you know something but can't retrieve it. There's a block between your mind and the information you need. This type of forgetfulness occurs more often as you age. About half the time you're able to retrieve the information within one minute.
- Misattribution. Misattribution occurs when you recall an experience but get details wrong. This type of memory lapse is common as you get older. You have more memories, and some of them degrade as you age. Misattribution often causes arguments about exactly when or where something happened.
Memory problems in young people
Although memory declines somewhat with age, even teenagers can be forgetful. The adolescent brain grows rapidly and isn't well-organized. Even highly responsible teens may forget things. The information just gets lost in their brains.
Young adults and people who are middle-aged can have memory problems, too. In one survey, about 14% of those aged 18 to 39 reported problems with forgetting, as did 22% of those aged 40 to 59. Researchers found that poor health and lifestyle choices caused forgetfulness. Factors that increased the risk of memory problems included stress, depression, high blood pressure, and lack of exercise.
Multitasking can cause memory problems. Young people who use multiple electronic devices may have trouble focusing. This lack of focus can keep information from sticking.
Memory problems in older people
As they age, all mammals show some memory problems related to the hippocampus. Since humans are mammals, it's reasonable to think that humans will, too. Memory loss could also result from slowed circulation in the brain or from changes in hormone levels.
Normal memory loss in humans usually affects episodic memory. That's the memory that governs our daily lives. Episodic memory tells us where we're supposed to go, when we should be there, and what to do when we arrive.
Is it dementia?
Forgetfulness can disrupt your life in little ways. You may have to rebook appointments, pay late fees, or replace lost items. Dementia disrupts your life in big ways. You may:
- Forget how to do everyday tasks
- Get lost in familiar places
- Have trouble following directions
- Repeat yourself during the same conversation
- Forget, mix up, or misuse words
- Show poor judgment
- Act in socially unacceptable ways
Another difference is that those with normal memory loss can recall, discuss, and laugh about episodes of forgetfulness. Those with dementia can't.
Other causes of memory problems
Other conditions can cause forgetfulness. Older people are more at risk for some of these conditions, such as dehydration. But no matter what your age, your memory can be affected by:
What to do about memory problems
Talk to your doctor if you are worried about forgetfulness. Your doctor may give you some tests or refer you to a specialist. If your diagnosis is dementia, your doctor will suggest medications and other steps that can help.
- If your memory is normal for your age, you can protect it with these steps:
- Take care of your health. Address any medical or psychological issues you have.
- Make positive lifestyle changes. Exercise more, improve your diet, get enough sleep, and reduce stress. Don't smoke.
- Don't overuse alcohol or medications. Get help if you have problems with substance abuse.
- Have your sight and hearing tested. Use eyeglasses and hearing aids if you need them, so you can take in information.
- Use memory aids. Make lists and keep a calendar. Develop a routine and follow it. Keep things in place.
- Enjoy a rich social life. Interact with others. Socializing is great for the brain and can improve your mood.
- Keep using your brain. Explore fresh interests. Try to learn something new every day.
Brain and Nervous System Resources
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HelpGuide: "Age-Related Memory Loss."
JAMA Neurology: "Age-Related Memory Decline: Current Concepts and Future Directions."
Harvard Health Publishing: "Forgetfulness — 7 types of normal memory problems."
National Institute on Aging: "Memory, Forgetfulness, and Aging: What's Normal and What's Not?"
UCLA Newsroom: "Poor health, lifestyle factors linked to memory complaints, even among younger adults."
University of Wisconsin-Madison: "The Absent Minded Teen: “Someone stole part of my kid’s brain.”