Forgetfulness may be cause for concern when you find yourself getting lost in places you didn’t before, or you’re more confused than usual.

Memory lapses are often a natural part of aging. If you’ve lost your keys or can’t remember your new neighbor’s name, it may be more of an inconvenience than a cause for concern.

But memory impairment can sometimes be an early sign of a more serious issue such as a type of dementia.

So, is the occasional memory slip-up natural or something more? When should you worry about forgetting things?

Many people record phone numbers or add appointments to a calendar to remember them.

But if memory issues make it difficult for you to do everyday activities independently, such as using your phone or finding your way home, it may be time to consult a doctor.

Signs to watch for include:

  • repeatedly asking the same questions
  • having a hard time following instruction
  • getting lost in places you know
  • experiencing more confusion about people, places, and time
  • neglecting self-care

Even if you’ve experienced only one or two signs, a conversation with a doctor can provide you with some helpful information.

Memory problems are a part of the loss of cognitive functioning known as dementia.

People who live with dementia experience challenges with:

  • remembering
  • thinking
  • reasoning
  • emotional regulation
  • daily living activities

The National Institute on Aging estimates that one-third of people over 85 years of age meet the criteria for a type of dementia.

But dementia isn’t a natural part of aging.

Memory loss and other dementia symptoms occur when neurons die after they’ve stopped working and lost their connections with other brain cells. Some neuron loss is a natural part of aging, but for people living with dementia, that loss is greater.

Dementia has several different forms, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s occurs because of brain changes that include protein accumulations called tau tangles and amyloid plaques.

Other forms of dementia include:

  • Frontotemporal dementia: features abnormal levels of tau and TDP-43 proteins and often occurs in people younger than 60 years of age
  • Lewy body dementia: Lewy bodies are atypical alpha-synuclein protein deposits
  • Vascular dementia: occurs when damaged blood vessels reduce blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain
  • Mixed dementia: when two or more types of dementia occur together

A 2020 study identifies hearing loss in midlife as a contributing factor to dementia. Researchers believe that hearing loss:

  • causes your brain to work harder to make sense of sounds such as speech
  • may cause the aging brain to lose volume more quickly
  • reduces social engagement, which is an important part of keeping your brain fit

Cognitive changes may seem like they’re from dementia but instead may be the result of a different and treatable condition such as an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid.

There are other reasons you may be experiencing dementia-type symptoms.

  • Mental health conditions such as depression can cause memory loss.
  • Sometimes dementia symptoms can occur because of a virus, as in the case of HIV-associated dementia. Repeated brain injury leading to chronic traumatic encephalopathy can also result in dementia characteristics.
  • Argyrophilic grain disease (AGD) occurs in about 31% of people who live to be at least 100 years of age, according to research from 2015. It’s the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease and Huntington’s Disease are two other conditions that create abnormal brain proteins, resulting in dementia symptoms.

The range of possible causes makes it even more important that you consult with a healthcare or mental health professional if you have any concerns. An accurate diagnosis can impact the suitability of your treatment.

There are some strategies that you can try to help you manage those changes to your memory, such as:

  • creating and following a daily routine
  • using tools such as calendars, lists, and notes
  • setting alarms or timers for tasks such as cooking or laundry
  • keeping important items such as keys in the same place every day

Living a healthy lifestyle can help, too. Not only will this improve the way you feel, but it may also protect your memory health:

Staying mentally active is also important to keep your brain fit and improve memory:

  • learn a new skill
  • do puzzles such as crosswords
  • play cards
  • vary your commuting route
  • volunteer
  • learn a musical instrument
  • read
  • try mental math first before using a calculator
  • practice memorizing
  • learn another language
  • protect your hearing or correct hearing loss

Some over-the-counter and prescription medications may cause memory loss as one of their side effects. If you take medication, it’s a good idea to discuss the side effects with a doctor to determine whether memory loss is a potential concern.

A small amount of memory loss is a natural part of aging. But if you have trouble with daily activities, this could be a sign of a more serious decline in your thinking, memory, and concentration.

If you’re unsure whether your memory lapses are a natural part of aging or something more, a healthcare or mental health professional can review your symptoms with you. They can help determine if there’s an underlying cause for your symptoms and recommend treatment if needed.

Meanwhile, there are ways to stay organized. You can use tools such as lists and calendars to stay on track.

Lifestyle measures such as regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep can also help.