DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, as people age, the risk of dementia increases. And it can be frustrating trying to figure out if memory loss is because of dementia or just normal glitches. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports that there are actually pretty clear differences.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: When my memory fails me, it's usually with names, that great restaurant I liked, the actor in that old movie. I'll go through the alphabet - A, B, C - trying to remember. Turns out I'm not alone, says Harvard Medical School neurologist Kirk Daffner.
KIRK DAFFNER: The speed at which we can retrieve information, the number of things that we can keep in mind at the same time, these things are more difficult.
NEIGHMOND: At around age 50, people might start to notice they're forgetting things. And lots of people do what I do, says Daffner - go through the alphabet for help. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. The fact is the brain ages just like the rest of the body. It can literally shrink. Brain cells don't communicate as well. Blood flow can diminish. Bottom line - this exquisitely complex organ just isn't functioning like it used to. But Daffner says forgetting the name of an actor is a lot different than this.
DAFFNER: It's far more concerning if when reminded of a movie that we've seen not remembering anything about the plot or not remembering that you even went to the movies.
NEIGHMOND: So it's not such a problem if you forget little bits of things. But it could be a problem if you forget entire experiences - how to operate a familiar object like a microwave or how to drive to a friend's house where you've been many times before.
DAFFNER: People who get lost in very familiar places, that's a red flag that something more serious may be involved.
NEIGHMOND: Even then, he says, people shouldn't panic. There are many things that can cause confusion and memory loss - health problems like sleep apnea, high blood pressure or depression, medications like antidepressants, even over-the-counter remedies like antihistamines. But Daffner says the best thing people can do is prevention. Build up your brain's reserve to combat aging.
DAFFNER: Read books. Go to movies that challenge. Take on new hobbies or activities that force one to think in novel ways.
NEIGHMOND: Keep your brain busy and working and get physically active. Exercise is a known brain booster. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.