A picture of young George Stone

Age-Related Memory Changes: What’s Normal and What’s Not

Your brain changes as you age. Here’s how to tell what’s to be expected and what’s cause for concern.
Author: Matt McMillen

George Stone recently began having trouble with his financial record keeping, a new experience for him. “All of a sudden, in the last few months, I’ve screwed up,” says Stone, 68, of Lake Frederick, Virginia. “I think I paid bills only to find out that I didn’t.”

It’s confusing because other signs tell him his mind is doing fine. Not long ago, he missed only one out of 50 questions on a highly technical test to upgrade his ham radio license.

His wife has noticed when there are problems, too. As the two of them handle the bills together now, Stone, who has severe hemophilia A, wonders if he’s experiencing normal signs of aging or something more serious, such as dementia.

Over the past several decades, the life expectancy of people with bleeding disorders has risen. That’s good news, of course. But as people get older, age-related cognitive decline and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases become more common.

How do you know what’s normal and what’s not?

1. What’s Normal

As you age, your brain tends to slow down a bit. For example, it might take you longer to develop plans or answer questions. “Just because you’re slower at processing information, it does not necessarily mean there is cause for concern,” says neurologist Douglas Scharre, M.D., director of cognitive neurology at the Ohio State University Center for Cognitive and Memory Disorders in Columbus, Ohio.

With age, you also may have a harder time learning new things and need reminders for taking medication and other daily tasks, says Beril Yaffe, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “It is normal for people to decline in certain areas like these,” she says.

2. What’s Not Normal

Misplacing your phone now and then is one example of normal cognitive decline. But if you regularly lose track of your phone or you can’t remember how it got there when you find it, that could indicate a deeper problem.

Getting lost or turned around in familiar places also is a red flag. “If your barbershop is 3 miles from your house, and you can’t remember which side of the street it is on, that’s not normal,” Scharre says.

Another sign that may warrant attention: asking the same question repeatedly because you don’t remember that you’ve asked it before.

Yaffe says that if you begin to have trouble with activities you were previously able to do, such as shopping and preparing meals, something more serious than normal aging might be to blame.

Keeping Memory Sharp as You Age Helps You Manage Your Bleeding Disorder

3. What You Should Do

If you have concerns about changes in your cognitive abilities, see your doctor. That’s exactly what Stone is doing — he already has an appointment with his psychiatrist.

“You should go in as soon as you can,” Scharre says. “Your doctor can decide whether what you’re experiencing is normal or not. If you’re diagnosed with an underlying condition, your doctor can also suggest next steps that could potentially help slow cognitive decline.”

5 Ways to Boost Your Brain Health: Do these five things to help keep your mind sharp and stave off age-related cognitive decline.