DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My mom is in her 80s, and I've noticed that her memory seems to be slipping. Sometimes she forgets a person's name or can't recall what she did the day before. Is it normal to have these types of lapses at her age or should I be worried they are signs of something more serious?
ANSWER: It is understandable that you are concerned about changes in your mother's memory. Memory lapses and modest decline in thinking skills are common as people age. There's a difference, however, between normal changes in memory and memory loss associated with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and Lewy body dementia. And some memory problems are the result of treatable conditions.
It may help to think of memory function as running on a continuum, with each person's memory and cognitive functioning falling somewhere along it. Some people have sharp memories and can recall even the smallest details, while others struggle to remember big events. Memory changes can be viewed as movement along this continuum.
Minor changes in memoryas a person ages are considered normal. This includes misplacing reading glasses or occasionally having difficulty finding the right word. These situations are common and within the range of normal memory changes. These types of lapses don't interfere with daily life and are not considered signs of dementia.
Mild cognitive impairment is a larger change along the memory continuum. This occurs if a person is experiencing memory changes in addition to cognitive changes, such as thinking or reasoning skills. Symptoms could include short-term memory problems, repeating conversations and questions, and increased reliance on lists. However, people with mild cognitive impairment usually can manage their own finances, medications and household chores, and drive without concern.
For some people, mild cognitive impairment does not worsen. Their memory and function remain constant for the rest of their lives. For others, it is an early symptom of a neurodegenerative condition such as Alzheimer's disease.
You may be concerned that your mother is developing dementia. It's important to know that dementia is not a specific disease, but rather a group of symptoms that affects memory, thinking and social abilities severely enough to interfere with daily life. Unfortunately, dementia has a negative connotation. What it really means is that a person's brain function is impaired enough that the person cannot live alone and requires help with some daily tasks. Memory loss that disrupts daily life is one of the first and more recognizable signs of dementia.
Other early signs can include:
I recommend that you schedule an appointment for your mother with a memory care expert. Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions cannot be diagnosed by completing a one-time memory test.
Regardless of diagnosis, here are a few things that you can do to help your mother's memory:
It can be challenging to cope with cognitive and memory changes. Remember to surround yourself with a care team that includes neurology, neuropsychology and psychiatry, as well as other practitioners who can offer more advice. — Kari Mongeon Wahlen, Neurology, Mayo Clinic Health System, Mankato, Minnesota