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Everyone forgets things at times. How often have you misplaced your cellphone or car keys? Have you ever forgotten the name of a person you just met?
Some degree of memory problems and a modest decline in other thinking skills are common parts of aging. However, there's a difference between normal memory changes and memory loss associated with dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other related disorders. And some memory problems could be caused by other treatable conditions.
It's normal to have minor memory loss as you age. This type doesn't prevent you from living a full, productive life. For example, you may occasionally forget an acquaintance's name but recall it later. You might misplace your glasses or need to write a list to remember tasks.
These changes in memory can be irritating, but are normal and manageable. They don't disrupt your ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.
Dementia isn't a specific disease. It's a group of symptoms that affect memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills.
Dementia usually begins gradually, worsens over time and interferes with a person's daily life, including working, managing daily tasks, social interactions and relationships.
Mild cognitive impairment involves a notable decline in at least one area of thinking skills, like memory. This decline is greater than the changes of aging and less than those of dementia. Having mild cognitive impairment doesn't prevent you from performing everyday tasks and being socially engaged.
Researchers and physicians are still learning about mild cognitive impairment. For some people, the condition doesn't worsen, and they can remain independent. For others, mild cognitive impairment is an early symptom of Alzheimer's disease or another disorder causing dementia.
Many medical problems can cause memory loss or other dementia-like symptoms. Most of these conditions can be treated. Your health care team can screen you for conditions that cause reversible memory impairment.
Talk with your health care team if you're concerned about memory loss or if a family member has brought up concerns about changes in your thinking. Sometimes the people who know you best will notice changes earlier than you will. It's good to have a family member or friend along to answer some questions based on observations.
You may have a general physical exam, blood tests or brain imaging. These can help identify reversible causes of memory problems and dementia-like symptoms.
You might be referred to a specialist who can diagnose dementia or memory disorders, such as a neurologist, psychiatrist, neuropsychologist or geriatrician. You may need additional testing, known as a neuropsychological test, to determine whether your thinking changes are normal for your age or not.
Coming to terms with memory loss and the possible onset of dementia can be difficult. Some people try to hide memory problems, and some family members or friends compensate for a person's memory loss ― sometimes without being aware of how much they've adapted to the impairment.
Getting a prompt diagnosis is important, even if it's challenging. Identifying a reversible cause of memory impairment enables you to get appropriate treatment.
Also, an early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder is beneficial because you can begin treatment, identify resources, settle legal matters and determine future care preferences.
Anne Shandera-Ochsner, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist in La Crosse and Onalaska, Wisconsin.
This article originally appeared on the Mayo Clinic Health System blog.
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