As I have already confessed several times in this column, the pandemic was not kind to my memory. Even after the worst of the virus-related disruptions had passed I found myself frequently walking into rooms and not remembering why I was there and blanking out on many of life's small chores and obligations.
Worried, I went digging around online and discovered I was not alone. There are very real neurological reasons why two years of confinement, boredom and stress can lead to a foggy mind and forgotten permission slips. Happily, I also learned my 40-some odd years shouldn't be slowing me down mentally either. Most healthy brains don't start slowing down until well into your 60s.
Which is good news for me and the many entrepreneurs who, like me, suffer from frequent small memory lapses. But this happy discovery raises a complementary question. If post-pandemic Swiss-cheese-brain isn't a sign of a serious cognitive glitch, what is? When should you worry that something is truly off with your memory?
Relax, losing your keys and forgetting names is totally normal.
Recently on the TED Ideas blog, neuroscientist, TED speaker, and best-selling author Lisa Genova offered a succinct and reassuring answer to this question. She starts by reassuring readers that many kinds of everyday memory lapses are perfectly normal.
Can't remember people's names or the title of the book you just read? Congratulations, unless it is happening literally dozens of times a day, you are human, not an early onset dementia sufferer. "This is one of the most common experiences of memory retrieval failure," Genova soothes readers. (Though if you're keen to get better at remembering names, there are lots of useful tricks you can try.)
Forget where you parked your car? Again, no worries. "Not remembering where you parked because you didn't pay attention is normal and different than what happens with Alzheimer's," she writes. Same thing with one of my personal favorites -- forgetting your keys (or other small household objects). Unless you find them someplace truly bizarre, your mind was just likely elsewhere when you had them last.
These common types of memory gaps are perfectly normal and nothing to worry about, but Genova's article isn't 100-percent cheerful. There is one type of memory problem that does merit concern, she says, and it's not something dramatic like wandering off and not being able to find your way home. If you struggle to complete simple mechanical processes that once came easy to you, then it's almost certainly time to seek out some expert advice on the state of your brain health.
"If you go to make a cup of coffee and don't remember how to work the machine or you're doing laundry but can't remember how to use the washer or you're stumped by any other tasks you've long known how to do and regularly do, this may be a sign of Alzheimer's," she warns.
She's careful to add that that's far from the only possible diagnosis. Your issue could be as simple as a vitamin deficiency or sleep deprivation. But if the buttons on your espresso machine are suddenly confusing you, it is probably time to talk to a professional.
All in all, the message I took from her article was a reassuring one. Accidentally locking myself out of the house may be annoying (especially for my husband, who has to come rescue me) but it's also well within the range of normal for a frazzled professional. Those of you out there with similar issues can celebrate with me that it is unlikely we have anything seriously cognitively amiss.
If you're looking to learn more about what types of memory failure are totally normal and which are red flags, you can check a longer conversation with Genova on the topic below: