What is Normal Memory Loss?

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

I see this headline quite frequently and the published answers that follow range from reasonably constructive to dangerously misleading. Here is what I believe to be a helpful perspective.

Most of the time, when a person past the age of 40 suggests that their memory is not as good as it used to be, they are actually saying one of two other things. I will describe each briefly below:

1) For those whose perceived memory loss manifests as "difficulty recalling names" or "inability to find the right word" then they are probably experiencing "slow" memory and not "broken" memory (which would indicate a medical problem). If your tennis serve has gotten slower since you were 25 and you accept that fact without fearing some underlying medical problem, then rest assured that your memory can get slower as well, even if you are completely healthy. The final proof for these people is that, once reminded of the name they could not recall, they instantly confirm it. This establishes that the information was still stored in their memory (not lost), they just hadn't been able to recall it as quickly as they would have liked.

2) For those who complain of losing track of things and not following through on details, the problem is generally one of distraction and/or overload. When you have a job, a spouse, children, bills to pay, elder parents to care for, college tuition to be met, etc., there are many things to think about in a given day. Many more, on average, than you probably had in your twenties. While you once had the luxury of concentrating on far fewer demands, you may now regularly lose track of a few details among the much greater administrative burden of your daily routine.

I contend that these are two very common descriptions of people who claim to have memory loss but actually do not. One group is correctly sensing a slow down in their retrieval speed and the other group is incorrectly attributing lack of focus to a recall deficit. Real memory loss is present when, given adequate time, one cannot store and retrieve information that they have focused on storing and retrieving.

So let's get back to the question (What is Normal Memory Loss?) with which we began. Most of the time, those asking the question don't really have memory loss, they have either slow recall or distractions that prevented them from storing the information in the first place. When neither of those explanations apply and the person truly cannot store and retrieve important information, the memory loss is real and, importantly, this is never normal.

When the memory loss is real, there will be an underlying cause of the problem that an enlightened physician can diagnose and treat. If your physician says it is "just old age" and neither of the two explanations above (slow recall and lack of focus) seem to apply, you should seek a second opinion from another physician.

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  1. I see this worry about losing one's memory all the time within the group of people I work with. Granted they are in their late seventies, and early eighties, yet they still fear the onset of dementia and/or alzheimers. I think this article will come in handy next time they try to determine why it is they can't remember certain things.

  2. What can be done about a slow memory

  3. I have heard that taking the amino acid L-Arginine and Vit D, can help clear the arteries and allow better circulation to the organs of the body including the brain. My mom has been taking a liquid form and is now playing her free cell computer game, where as 3 months ago she was not even able concentrate and remember how to play.

  4. I am soon tobe 78 years old and the problem of memory loss is very scary. I have had many problems that add to this concern, such as lonelyness, inadequate income and seeminly poor management of what I have. Lost of sleep has been on going for such a long time. I want to correct my concerns but, just don't know what to do. Fifty years of my life was spent helping others, now I am at lost as to what I can do to help myself. Please help me. Dolores

  5. Hello friend excellent and very professional blog about What is Normal Memory Loss?. I can collect some memory loss causes and I want to add in your post 1-Alzheimer's disease is an illness which can cause mild to severe memory loss.
    2-Parkinson's disease is a genetic defect which may result in memory loss.
    3-Huntington's disease is an inherited disease which can result in memory loss.
    4-It is sometimes a side effect of chemotherapy in which cytotoxic drugs are used to treat cancer.
    5-Certain forms of mental illness also have memory loss as a key symptom, including fugue states and the much more famous Dissociative Identity Disorder.
    5-Stress-related activities are another factor which can result in memory loss.
    6-It can also be caused by traumatic brain injury, of which a concussion is a form.
    thanks for sharing this important information!!

  6. I am wondering if surgical removal of one's ovaries while pre-menopausal has been shown to have any deleterious effect on brain function later in life?