7 Sneaky Signs You Could Have Cognitive Decline, According to Experts
It happens from time to time: You start telling a story, only to lose your train of thought halfway through. Or you walk into a room and can't remember what you went in there to do. Or the harder you try to remember the name of that kitchen utensil you need to buy, the further its name slips away.
Mental glitches like these happen to everyone and are understandably freaky, but aren't necessarily a sign of cognitive decline. "The feeling of your brain short-circuiting is often more likely due to psychological processes," says Sarah Garcia-Beaumier, Ph.D., a licensed neuropsychologist and associate professor at Stetson University in Florida.
Increases in stress, distractions, multitasking, anxiety or depression (all of which have skyrocketed in the last year) can be big contributors. "A common consideration we have to make clinically is whether cognitive symptoms are due to early dementia, or rather due to a depressive or anxiety disorder," Garcia-Beaumier says. "This trend has only increased during the pandemic."
The Difference Between Cognitive Lapses and Cognitive Decline
Cognitive decline is typically a neurodegenerative process where you exhibit a worsening of performance in one or more areas, such as memory, attention or language.
We typically begin showing cognitive aging in our 30s, and some people exhibit more cognitive decline than others their age. Signs often include what we normally experience day to day—forgetting to call someone or losing the word you wanted to say. When those symptoms appear much more than they did previously, so much so that others are starting to notice, "that's typically an early red flag for cognitive decline beyond what we expect for the normal aging process," says Garcia-Beaumier.
Normal aging will slow down retrieval of memory, for example, and most individuals will have some difficulty remembering names of people, items or places—but these bits of memory come back in 10 to 15 minutes, or sometimes hours later.
"These minor glitches in memory aren't a sign of evolving dementia or cognitive impairment," says Thomas Hammond, M.D., a neurologist with Baptist Health's Marcus Neuroscience Institute in Boca Raton, Florida. "Forgetting conversations or important appointments, or feeling lost in familiar places, are more worrisome and concerning for significant early cognitive impairment."
This doesn't automatically mean you'll end up with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, though. "In fact, some people who meet the criteria for what we call mild cognitive impairment actually resolve or stabilize, without further decline," says Garcia-Beaumier.
But if your lapses are related to psychological distress—or another underlying health issue—and you allow the stress to go on, she adds, that can put you at a higher risk of dementia. Here are sneaky signs of cognitive decline to watch out for so you can start turning things around posthaste.
Signs You Could Have Cognitive Decline
1. You struggle to stay on top of things.
The corticolimbic system of the brain modulates the experience of anxiety. "It also happens to be the same area of the brain that helps with processing speed, attention, planning, judgement, organization and lots of thinking skills," says Garcia-Beaumier. "So if there's a change in this area of the brain due to stress or anxiety, these cognitive skills are also affected."
This overlap in brain pathways, taken with the larger amount of resources going toward modulating your stress and anxiety (because your body is essentially bouncing back and forth between survival and recuperation mode) will lead to a varying array of cognitive deficits.
These pathways are also crucial in processing information—if you can no longer pay attention to things, your brain isn't going to be able to encode them and retain them for later memory.
2. You can't find the words you're looking for.
Cognitive decline manifests itself in almost all aspects of complex daily tasks, especially our language. "Even a simple undertaking, like naming a kitchen appliance, engages our brain networks extensively, making it a sensitive indicator of early decline," says Aubry Alvarez-Bakker, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and research lead at Yes Supply Co., a wellness coaching company.
A strong sign can be found in moments when you might forget a simple, specific word you're looking for, so you try to describe it instead. Over time, you might also start having difficulty keeping up with conversations, which can lead to anxiety in social situations.
The specific mechanism behind why this happens isn't fully known, but research shows that language decline often originates in the left side of the brain. "We also know that low BDNF production (a protein produced by our nervous system that's crucial for the production of new brain cells) means fewer new cells to help us carry on activity across our brain," says Alvarez-Bakker.
As we age, production of this protein naturally declines, so our body relies heavily on our environment to create BDNF to "fertilize" our brain and allow new cells to form. "Among the best foods to consume to boost BDNF in our body—and subsequently ward off cognitive decline—are blueberries, turmeric, green tea and dark chocolate," says Alvarez-Bakker.
3. You feel blasé about things you used to enjoy.
Because apathy is a common symptom of severe burnout, it's easy to pay no mind that it can also be a symptom of cognitive decline. "It's actually the most common symptom and perhaps the most overlooked," says Alvarez-Bakker.
A sudden loss of interest in activities you used to love, or a willingness to throw in the towel easily, is reported in up to half of all cases of dementia. You might lose interest in reading books, gardening or many other activities you used to enjoy. You might also find things that used to be easy for you to accomplish are now overwhelming, or that you avoid complex tasks or projects entirely.
"This is unfortunate because withdrawing from stimulation is known to speed up the decline process," says Alvarez-Bakker. "Luckily, our lifestyle can help counteract this symptom to an extent." When apathy creeps in, the best step to take is to get personal by integrating things you deeply enjoy—music, art, sports, reminiscing—into daily activities that will boost your participation in life, and in turn, stimulation.
4. You've been acting out of character.
Subtle personality changes are an often-missed sign of cognitive decline, primarily because of how easily they can be blamed on chronic stress (say, becoming easily angered or swearing when the f-bomb isn't a regular part of your vocabulary).
You might also find yourself withdrawing from social interactions and activities—and when you are around others, you may not participate in discussions, but instead stay quiet. "These are symptoms which are often written off as an individual being shy," says Hammond. "However, the person who was once talkative and garrulous will often become quiet and a wallflower as an early sign of developing cognitive decline."
Regardless if stress is the cause or a variable that's augmenting the cognitive decline, "any treatment hoping to prevent or reduce cognitive decline needs to incorporate stress management," says Isaac Tourgeman, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neuropsychology at Albizu University in Miami, Florida.
5. You're always ruminating and worrying.
Incessantly ruminating and worrying keeps your fight-or-flight response in overdrive, and symptoms of chronic stress can mimic cognitive decline, such as forgetfulness and inattention.
"Uncontrolled, toxic thinking has the potential to create a state of low-grade inflammation across the brain and body over time, which can impact our cognitive health and ability to remember or recall information," says Caroline Leaf, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and author of Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. "If left unmanaged, this kind of chronic cognitive upset can progress into varying levels of cognitive decline."
Resolution of the underlying causes of your rumination and worry is paramount to improving current, and preventing future, symptoms of cognitive decline.
6. You've recently been sick or have a chronic condition.
"Cognitive dulling is a common feature associated with general medical illnesses, such as the flu, urinary tract infection and gastroenteritis," says Hammond. "Metabolic stress caused by minor infection will often lead to metabolic encephalopathy, which is simply a transient cognitive decline."
Other conditions can also lead to cognitive decline, including sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea), diabetes or cardiovascular issues. "Similar to psychological distress, sometimes symptoms can be resolved if it's due to one of these conditions," says Garcia-Beaumier. "But if left untreated, it does increase a person's risk of dementia down the line."
Depression also becomes an important rule-out and can result in what's called pseudodementia, where the depression essentially masquerades as cognitive impairment. "Symptoms present as forgetfulness, difficulty with attention and lowered energy and motivation," says Tourgeman. This is when it's especially important to consult with your doctor to ensure the right diagnosis is made and proper treatment given.
7. Other people are noticing your mental glitches.
"We all experience cognitive glitches to a certain extent when going through the pressures of life, but a good rule of thumb is if anyone who knows you has noticed a consistent increase of these symptoms over time, it may be a sign that you're experiencing cognitive decline," says Leaf. Usually the person experiencing symptoms is the last to be aware of the decline, so it's important to be open to feedback and proactive about taking action.
The Best Ways to Prevent or Slow Cognitive Decline
"While we currently aren't able to change our genes, we can influence how our environment impacts them," says Tourgeman. "A healthy lifestyle—eating a health-conscious diet (especially one made for boosting brain health, like the MIND Diet), exercising regularly, reducing stress and distractions, maintaining a sense of utility and connectedness—can all go a long way."
And no healthy lifestyle with the goal of avoiding or improving cognitive decline would be complete without a wide range of activities that keep your brain engaged.
"Playing brain games on your phone will only go so far, though, mostly because you'll only get really good at that one thing," says Garcia-Beaumier. "Doing lots of activities that you enjoy and that challenge you is best." Things like reading, playing games, learning new skills and dancing can all contribute to optimal cognitive health when done in conjunction with other healthy habits.
How to Know When It's Time to See a Doctor
"Any time someone's noticing cognitive changes (memory isn't as good, brain seems slower or foggy) they should check in with their doctor," says Garcia-Beaumier. "But it's especially important if family or friends are also noticing issues or if the issues make it hard to fulfill daily responsibilities."
You can try to work on decreasing stress and improving how you take care of any other health conditions to see if that also clears up any cognitive issues, but there isn't a definitive way to know whether your symptoms are due to stress, psychological issues, another health condition or legit cognitive decline without talking to your doctor and possibly seeing specialists for further testing.
"Even getting some basic tests, early before any issues arise, can allow your doctor to compare your current cognitive performance to possible cognitive issues in the future," says Garcia-Beaumier.