"Where are my car keys?" "What was your name again?" "Oh! I completely forgot our meeting today!"
Unpredictable, frustrating and, at times, embarrassing memory lapses like these are moments many of us would rather forget. Yet if frequent bouts of forgetfulness are causing you stress and worry, take note-there is most likely a simple explanation.
"The memory troubles most people experience are quite common," says Suzanne Craft, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington. "They are also very different from those associated with serious mental health troubles, such as Alzheimer's, which usually don't occur until late in life."
Dr. Craft explains that there is a big difference between losing cognitive function in the brain -- or in essence losing the ability to remember -- and simply having difficulty recalling information. Most commonly, random memory problems are associated with the normal aging process or are a result of lifestyle stresses.
To understand the memory process, think of the brain as a road map and each memory as a different destination. Just as roads are used to reach each destination, repetition, association and other mental cues are used to access memories. The more roads leading to and from each memory, the easier it will be for a person to find it when they need to.
Changes in memory are a natural part of the aging process. As early as age 40, people may start to notice the roads to memory beginning to wear. Things may not be as easy to recall as they used to, or it may take more effort to retain new memories. "This is not a cause for alarm, it's normal," she adds.
Memory loss in people of all ages can also be the result of increased pressures in daily life. Depression, stress and fatigue can overload the mind with information and form roadblocks to memories.
"Such people usually have very complicated lives," Dr. Craft says. "It's not that they're worse at remembering things but that they literally have too much to remember."
So how can a person improve their ability to remember? One of the best ways, says Dr. Craft, is to work on building more roads, or connections, to memories.
"Associating a person's name to an object, having them repeat it or identifying a characteristic trait will make it much more likely you'll remember them in the future," says Dr. Craft. "The more active you are in the memory process, the better."
Organization and simplification can also be effective to improve memory. Writing lists, keeping a journal, making notes and attempting to reduce the amount of information you handle at one time can help greatly.
While improvements in memory can be made, Dr. Craft notes that people's natural ability to remember things varies greatly. This ability does not relate to a person's likelihood of developing serious memory problems later in life.
"Obviously not everyone has a photographic memory," Dr. Craft says. "If you've always had troubles remembering names, you probably always will unless you can find a way to improve this."
While the majority of memory troubles are not cause for concern, some can be an indicator of Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Among the red flags to be aware of is people who repeat things more than once during a short time period -- such as telling someone the same story twice or paying a bill twice because they can't recall if it was paid.
People with hypertension, diabetes or thyroid problems can be at risk of developing serious memory problems if their condition is not properly controlled. Dr. Craft stresses that those with questions or concerns about memory loss contact their physician.
© 2013 Main Line Health