Older adults often experience some forgetfulness as they age. Most of these mild cognitive changes are considered a byproduct of normal aging and usually not cause for concern.

But which symptoms are considered normal and which are signals something more serious is at work? 

It's not always easy to tell the difference. In fact, memory warning signs are often misunderstood or ignored.

Health experts generally agree that forgetting to pay a bill or misplacing your glasses are not signs of serious cognitive problems. More concerning would be forgetting how to fill out a check or how to put on your glasses once you find them.

Here's another example: You drive to the mall for a shopping excursion and park the car outside your favorite store. Leaving the mall several hours later, you know which lot you parked in, but you don't recall exactly where. However, after a few minutes of searching, you locate your vehicle.

Is this a sign of memory loss? Probably not. When you arrived at the mall, you may have been thinking about what tasks you needed to accomplish, and this distraction prevented you from making a lasting memory of where you left your car. 

On the other hand, if you find your automobile but have difficulty opening the door or starting the engine, this could be an indication of more serious cognitive problems. Why? Because unlocking and starting a car are considered ingrained, automatic tasks that a person does without thinking. Similarly, putting on glasses and paying a bill are also ingrained, so forgetting how to do them may be a concern. 

Family members and friends should be be on the lookout for a decline in three significant skill areas: memory, thinking and reasoning. Below are some symptoms of cognitive problems:

  • Memory loss, especially short-term resulting in repeated questions or comments.
  • Personality or mood changes, such as anger, confusion, withdrawal.
  • New challenges with language, obvious in writing, speaking or understanding.
  • Confusion surrounding time and/or place.
  • Inability to complete regular tasks or follow steps. 
  • Getting lost and not being able to retrace steps.
  • Change in walking gait or balance. 
  • Problems making decisions or exhibiting poor judgment

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing some of the above symptoms, don’t ignore the situation. Inaction won’t make the problems go away. See a medical professional who can help determine what is causing the condition. The good news is that sometimes memory loss stems from a cause that can be easily treated, such as a drug interaction. 

Also, be aware that the person experiencing memory issues may not even realize there is a problem.

Schedule a visit to see the family doctor for an evaluation. Ahead of time, make notes about the severity and frequency of symptoms and bring those notes along with any questions you may have.

Ask your doctor to perform a physical that includes a simple memory assessment test called a Mini-Cog.

If Alzheimer’s or another brain disease is suspected, request a referral to a neurologist. Knowing the cause of the memory problems will help you and your family prepare for the future.

Whatever the diagnosis, knowledge is power.

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