Harvard Health Letter

Do memory lapses signal pending dementia?

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If you notice troubling memory changes, it's probably not cause for immediate alarm, suggests a study published online Sept. 14, 2014, in Neurology. Researchers tracked more than 500 people with an average age of 73 and found there was about a decade from the time memory complaints began until there was a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, and 12 years before there was a diagnosis of dementia. But the delay in diagnosis doesn't mean memory issues in older adults should be ignored. It may signal the need for you to get a baseline assessment that can be used for comparison in the future.

How do you know what's normal and what isn't? "Unless memory problems are extreme and persistent, they are not considered indicators of memory-impairing illnesses. Some memory problems become more pronounced with age, but these difficulties often tend to be related to absentmindedness," says Harvard Medical School psychology instructor Dr. Kim Willment. "Struggling to remember a particular word or a name is not at all unusual. Walking into a room and not remembering the reason for going would also be quite common. We become more worried when we hear that a person has completely forgotten a major event or activity or pertinent details from that activity within several weeks. For example, it would be concerning to have attended a wedding two to three weeks ago and then forgotten the wedding itself or who got married," says Dr. Scott McGinnis, an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.

If you're concerned about your memory or thinking skills, talk to your doctor about whether you need a memory screening or a formal evaluation. 

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