Memory Access v. Memory Loss: When Should You Worry?

You’re already 10 minutes late for work, and as you rush out the door, you grab your keys and your jacket, leaving your laptop behind.

Are you losing your mind, or just having a bad day?

Don’t worry. During a flurry of activity or the height of a stressful moment, it’s easy to be forgetful–“senior moments” and bad days happen.

Memory access, or, in the case above, brain fog or absentmindedness, and memory loss, which impacts our ability to work, live independently, or maintain a social life, are two very different things. What you experienced was a memory access issue.

How Memory Works

There are three steps to processing memory: encoding, storage, and recall or retrieval. Accessing memory is not as easy as opening a drawer and removing the item you need. It’s a complex and resourceful process of collecting information from diverse areas of the brain.

There are three kinds of memory recall or retrieval: cued, free, and serial. In cued recall, we remember items using cues or guides, such as pictures or references, to retrieve a memory. During free recall, we remember things in random order, for example, the first, last, or frequently noted items, or items adjacent to one another on a list. Serial recall, as the name suggests, refers to remembering items in the order in which they occurred, such as life events.

A variety of circumstances can impact your ability to remember. Knowing you’re already late for work, stress can cause forgetfulness. Depression and anxiety, which often exhibit symptoms of dementia, can also cause you to forget. Likewise, lack of sleep, dehydration, malnutrition, hormone imbalance, medical conditions, and medication side effects can all impact your memory. Each of these are treatable afflictions that can be corrected with prompt and proper medical attention.

Types of Memory

Memory is stored in three ways: short-term, long-term, or sensory. Sensory memory is the shortest and the only type that cannot be recalled. Our sensory memory allows us to retain information obtained through one of the five senses very briefly—between a half second and three to four seconds—to determine if it should be stored longer.

Our short-term memory, also referred to as working or active memory, is likewise brief, allowing us to store limited information for only a few minutes. Long-term memory is stored in larger quantities for much longer periods of time. While sensory and short-term memory translate information visually or acoustically, long-term memory processes it in context, allowing us to access and use the information throughout our lives to make decisions, solve problems, and interact with others.

When to Call a Doctor

We’ve all had moments where we forgot the name of a movie we really enjoyed, or the book that inspired us to get into shape this year. However, getting to the theater and not remembering where you are or how you got there, or the inability to follow traffic signs or other wayfinding elements are cause for concern.

It’s also easy to become so busy in our daily lives that the days seem to fly by, culminating in an exasperated, “It’s Friday, already?!” But when you cannot distinguish the day of the week or time of day, and miss scheduled appointments despite repeated reminders, you should contact your physician.

Forgetting the name of the new neighbor who just introduced himself or a popular TV show is fairly common. However, avoiding social situations because you cannot remember words, identify people and items by the wrong name, or cannot perform daily activities without assistance may be indications that you should talk to your doctor.

The fundamental difference between memory access and memory loss is the strength of the brain’s communication network in processing memory and its impact on the ability to function in daily life. Seeking medical advice for a health concern or repeated memory lapses can help identify an underlying cause and lead to professional treatment, when necessary. Likewise, early diagnosis of memory loss can help to stem the pace of impairment and improve quality of life through symptom management and other therapies.

If you are experiencing memory lapses that impact your daily routine or quality of life, contact your doctor to discuss a non-invasive, insurance-covered cognitive assessment from Axon Medical Technologies that can provide valuable data for vital treatment.

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