Memory Lapses: When Should You Be Worried?

doctor, hormone replacement
(Image credit: Monkey Business Images | Shutterstock)

"The Healthy Geezer" answers questions about health and aging in his weekly column.

Question: How can you tell when you should go to a doctor for memory lapses?

Answer: This is a serious question that demands a joke for openers...

Because they are forgetful, an elderly husband and wife go to the doctor. The doctor tells them their problem isn't serious and they should just write down reminders.

One evening, the husband is watching TV and his wife is in the kitchen.

"Honey, can you get me a dish of ice cream? And don't forget to write it down."

"I don't have to write it down."

"Yeah, but I want some whipped cream."

"I'll remember."

"And some nuts and a cherry on top. Write it down."

"For God's sake, you want a sundae. I can remember a sundae."

A half-hour passes and the wife brings out a tray with scrambled eggs, link sausages, coffee and juice.

"I knew it!" the husband cries. "You forgot the toast."

So, when should you go to your doctor to discuss your memory lapses? That's a personal judgment call. I've found that I can't remember the names of movie stars and ballplayers the way I used to. I attribute this to what I call the "overloaded filing cabinet." As we get older, we accumulate so many memories that it's impossible to find the one we want.

I'm not sufficiently worried about my memory difficulties to mention them to my doctor. But if you are worried, get tested.

The unfunny truth is that Alzheimer's disease begins with difficulty remembering the familiar — people, things, events. Or, you start having trouble doing simple arithmetic in your head. These annoyances are common to seniors with healthy brains, so most of us don't get too worked up over them.

But, as Alzheimer's progresses, it can make people forget how to brush their teeth or change channels on a TV. And it gets worse until patients require complete care.

If you're having some memory lapses that worry you, go to the doctor with a positive attitude. The fact is that many different medical conditions may cause Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Some of these medical conditions may be treatable. You could be suffering from the effects of a high fever, dehydration, poor nutrition, reactions to medicines, thyroid problems or a minor head injury.

And then there are those pesky emotions. Feeling sad, lonely, worried or bored can affect people facing retirement or coping with the death of a loved one. Adapting to change can make you forgetful.

There are benefits to an early diagnosis of Alzheimer's. Knowing early helps patients and their families plan for the future. It gives them time to discuss care while the patient can still participate in decisions. Early diagnosis also offers the best chance to treat the symptoms of the disease.

Scientists are working to develop new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s. Although research is helping us learn more about the disease, we still do not know what causes Alzheimer's, and there is no cure.

[In my next column, I'll report more about memory and aging.]

If you would like to read more columns, you can order a copy of "How to be a Healthy Geezer" at

All Rights Reserved © 2013 by Fred Cicetti

Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."