Did You Just Forget, or Is It Something More Serious?

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Have you called your daughter by your wife’s name or your son by his brother’s name? Have you misplaced your car keys or forgotten where you parked at the mall?

If you worry these might be signs of significant memory loss or the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, which causes a slow deterioration in memory and reasoning skills, fear not, experts said.

Not all memory lapses are created equal.

Forgetfulness is natural

By the age of 45, the average person experiences a decline in memory, Dr. Gary W. Small, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in an email.

Forgetting facts or events over time, absent-mindedness and incorrectly recalling a detail are among six “normal” memory problems that should not cause concern, according to the Center for Brain-Mind Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

When people do experience normal memory decline related to aging, 85 percent of their complaints involve recalling people’s names, Dr. Small said.

Why do I confuse names?

You can blame multitasking for overloading your mind. Think about the ways we are driven to distraction with smartphones and social media, for instance.

“Whenever our brains are taxed by multiple demands, cognitive ‘slips’ or errors are more likely to occur due to a concept called memory ‘interference,’ ” Carrington Wendell, a neuropsychology specialist at the Anne Arundel Medical Group in Annapolis, Md., said in an email.

Name mix-ups are also more likely to occur when the two names share the same beginning, middle or ending, such as Bob and Ben or Dave and Jake, and are the same sex and similar age, she added.

What else contributes to forgetfulness?

Stress and lack of sleep can worsen the symptoms, Dr. Small said, but the side effects of medications, infections, thyroid abnormalities and depression can also impair memory.

Other possible causes include hypertension and diabetes, Dr. Thomas M. Wisniewski, director of the Center for Cognitive Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said in an interview.

What are serious signs of memory loss?

Dr. Wisniewski said it is one thing to forget where you left your car keys, but it could be something more serious if you don’t know what the keys are for or how to use them. Getting lost in familiar places can also be a warning sign, he said.

Look out for instances where you or a loved one is unable to correctly name things and give them alternative names, Ann Norwich, director of the adult gerontology nurse practitioner program at York College of Pennsylvania in York, Pa., said in an email. For example, instead of saying the mail was on the counter, a person with serious memory issues might say it was on the plate or in the oven.

“Additional signs of memory impairment include irritability or even explosiveness when questioned about their memory,” she added. A person with dementia may create stories and become suspicious of others and withdraw from friends and family.

The Alzheimer’s Association has a list of warning signs of the disease, including poor judgment and memory loss that disrupts daily life.

At what age should I be concerned?

Dr. Wisniewski said it was rare that a person below the age of 60 would exhibit the symptoms of dementia, unless there was a family history.

The risk for dementia is 10 percent in people 65 years or older and approaches 50 percent by age 85, Dr. Small said.

Consulting with a health care professional is necessary to tell the difference between normal aging and dementia, he added. Tests include reviewing the history and nature of the symptoms, a physical exam, often a brain scan to rule out strokes and a mental exam to determine the degree and nature of the cognitive impairment, he said.

Dr. Norwich noted that “dementia is insidious.”

“Families adapt to the changes in their loved ones without recognizing that there may be something amiss,” she said, adding that sometimes it is only in retrospect that relatives recognize that memory loss has been building over time and that their loved one may have dementia.