Has our memory worsened? Myths and truths about memory issues


By: Diana Bello Aristizábal

Para leer en Español

Are we more forgetful today than we were before? This is the question many ask themselves these days when it seems that forgetting where we left the keys, friends’ birthdays or making that important call is common for the majority of people. But the question we must ask ourselves about this matter is whether our memory has really worsened, or we just think it has, and, more importantly, whether the symptom is pathological or not.


Some studies suggest there is indeed a current trend of thinking we are developing cognitive problems, including lack of attention, the inability to retain memories or to think clearly. For example, one by the Census Bureau released at the end of 2023 showed more Americans today report having serious cognitive difficulties than at any other time in the last 15 years.


However, it’s necessary to consider that in times of social media, multitasking, meaning doing several things at the same time, and mobile apps that tell us, for example, where exactly to go without forcing us to learn to infer that through a physical map like in the old days, we are more distracted than ever and we don’t have as many opportunities as before to strengthen our memory.


What is normal and what isn’t?

The growing tendency to forget things must be analyzed through a magnifying glass to avoid falling into inaccuracies. In order to comply with the previous statement, the first thing to do is differentiate between normal memory loss or associated with a condition and dementia, which includes Alzheimer’s disease.


“When someone says their memory is not working as well as it used to, they often mean that something about their cognition is failing, such as their ability to pay attention, process data, or multitask,” M.D. Geriatric Psychiatrist, Elizabeth A. Crocco, explains.


The also Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Miami (UM) Miller School of Medicine states that although those who experience these symptoms label them as ‘a memory problem’, it’s often a nuisance not necessarily linked to a disorder or pathology. “There are many factors that could cause these difficulties, one of them being aging. As we age, we are no longer as skilled as we used to in our youth years and that is typically normal.”


In addition, some psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety or attention deficit disorder sometimes lead to memory issues or of other kind related with cognition, just like overworking or actively performing several roles at the same time do.


The same can happen in those who suffer from thyroid disease, hormone or vitamin deficiencies or other metabolic diseases, as notes Neurologist at HCA, Florida Kendall Hospital and Associate Program Director at the Design Neuroscience Center, Pamela Youssef.


In contrast, when we talk about a memory disorder, we refer to having Alzheimer’s or being at risk of developing this disease or others that are within the dementia spectrum, a term that refers to a significant neurocognitive disorder that limits the ability to live functionally.


According to Dr. Youssef, to discern whether there is a normal memory issue or associated with another disease or if it’s a symptom linked to dementia, two conditions must be met: The patient shows a severe impairment in memory at an advanced age and is unable to carry out everyday tasks.


For Dr. Crocco, who is also the Medical Director of both the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and Aging and the UM Memory Disorders Clinic, memory issues in a patient are no longer normal when they happen too frequently, loved ones see a significant change, they no longer know where they are in familiar surroundings, cannot remember the year or the day of the week, and begin to make mistakes in tasks previously mastered. “This is no longer part of normal aging.”


But then again, are we more forgetful today? For Dr. Crocco, we aren’t and in most cases it’s a matter of a subjective perception. “We cannot state we have a memory issue until we undergo an evaluation, but if we have the slightest suspicion, we should go to a specialist early on.”


About this, Dr. Youssef thinks that what remains to be true is that today many more young people complain of what they call brain fog that translate into forgetting things in the short term. “Brain fog includes not being able to think clearly, having short attention span, or the inability to process things.”


Regarding dementia, the neurologist says more patients are being diagnosed at an early age, although this may be due to the fact that advances in medicine allow for better diagnoses than in previous years, which doesn’t mean the disease is increasing. 


However, whether or not there is a pathology, it’s a subjective discomfort or not, and whether or not there is a hereditary component (in some types of dementia this factor becomes more relevant), adopting a healthy lifestyle today is always a good course of action to strengthen the memory and reduce the risk of suffering from some type of dementia.


The number one practice is to workout followed by monitoring risk factors, eating a Mediterranean-style diet, getting hearing checkups, socially interacting, challenging the mind with activities such as learning a new language, limiting alcohol intake, managing stress, having a good sleep hygiene and regularly going to the doctor.


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