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Memory Loss: What’s Normal, What’s Not

One in three seniors lives with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia and the devastating disease kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

More than 6 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s and everyone, it seems, has friends or family who has been impacted by the disabling condition.

Memory Loss

 Chad Yucus, MD, NorthShore Neurological Institute, an expert in memory disorders and dementia, answers some of the most common questions surrounding memory loss and offers suggestions for optimizing memory and cognition.

Is memory loss a normal function of aging?
Dr. Yucus:
It is normal to forget some things, and difficulty retrieving a word in conversation and the name of someone you do not see very often are common for aging.

What are signs of normal aging vs. memory problems that could signal dementia or Alzheimer’s?
Dr. Yucus:
Memory problems that interfere with daily life, such as forgetting how to do things, needing constant reminders for the very important appointments, and frequent repetition of the same questions, are indicators that memory loss may be more than normal aging.

At what age do most people begin experiencing some memory loss?
Dr. Yucus:
This is a difficult question to answer, since some memory loss is normal for every age. There is a very small group of people who have superior autobiographical memory, but otherwise, we all forget some details of conversations and events. Forgetting a word or name and recalling it later is more common in the “senior” years.

What are the best strategies to improve/strengthen memory as we age?
Dr. Yucus:
Keeping the brain healthy is very important, and this involves regular physical exercise, such as aerobic exercise for 30 minutes every day, five days a week. Diet is very important to maintain good health of the arteries in the brain, and this involves following a Mediterranean diet. Mental exercise is also important, such as learning a new language, learning a new hobby, or working games and puzzles.

Are there different strategies to help memory for those at higher risk for Alzheimer’s (genetic marker or family history)?
Dr. Yucus:
Those people who have a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease benefit from starting “brain health” strategies very early, even in their 20’s and 30’s.

At what age should most people begin to think about protecting their memory or building memory function?
Dr. Yucus: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle should be done at every age, but this is especially important beginning in the ’40s.

What are the most common questions and complaints you hear from patients worried about their memory?
Dr. Yucus:
Many people are worried about developing Alzheimer’s disease, losing their independence, and being a burden to their family members. For those who notice more difficulty with memory, it is helpful to have a medical examination early to determine if your memory trouble is due to other factors besides a primary brain disease, such as changes in mood, stress, sleep, or medications.