Have you recently forgotten a friend’s name or where you left your keys? If so, you’re not alone. Most middle-aged women experience lapses in memory from time to time, especially before or during menopause.

At least half of Americans over the age of 65 say they’re more forgetful now than when they were younger, according to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.

Usually, lapses in memory can be attributed to normal aging, but sometimes they can be a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Dementia is a general term that means a loss of memory that interferes with daily activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, marked by severe memory and functioning problems, and which can eventually lead to death. Like other forms of memory loss and dementia, Alzheimer’s is caused by changes in the brain.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s accounts for an estimated 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. It’s a progressive disease, meaning it worsens over time. Some other types of dementia include Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

The difference between occasional forgetfulness and these serious memory problems isn’t always so clear. Read on to learn when it might be time to ask for help.

As people age, many changes affect how different parts of the body function, including the brain. Chemical and physical changes in the brain can make it more challenging to learn new skills, more difficult to remember information accurately, and more likely that things, such as a pair of glasses or an item on a grocery list, will be forgotten.

One major change to the body that may cause normal forgetfulness during menopause is a reduction in the body’s hormone levels. Estrogen is one major hormone that can impact memory before or during menopause. It has a role in regulating a variety of brain chemicals, along with many functions of the nervous system.

As your body’s estrogen levels decrease, which happens before and during menopause, estrogen can no longer participate in brain function as it normally had. This can cause occasional lapses in brain function, resulting in short-term memory issues. This decrease in estrogen can also lead to anxiety, depression, hot flashes, and sleep disturbances, conditions that may contribute to memory problems.

Occasional fogginess and forgetfulness may be a result of normal aging, but even so it can be frustrating to live with. Clinical studies suggest that replacing some of the natural hormones lost before and early on in menopause may help reverse some of the memory-loss problems women normally experience as they age.

If your memory problems are interfering with your quality of life, you may want to consider discussing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) as an option with your doctor.

The goal of HRT is to provide a short-term solution to slow some of the major changes to the body that occur during menopause. Taking low doses of estrogen, and sometimes estrogen combined with another hormone called progesterone, can lessen the intensity of menopausal symptoms, such as:

  • forgetfulness
  • hot flashes
  • night sweats
  • mood swings

HRT can also help strengthen bones, which naturally become weaker with age.

Estrogen isn’t intended as a long-term solution to normal memory problems attributable to aging. This is because it can increase your chances of developing other conditions, such as:

  • heart disease
  • stroke
  • blood clots
  • breast cancer

The role of HRT in dementia is unclear. Research shows conflicting results as to whether it may lead to or protect against dementia. Additionally, HRT isn’t recommended for women who have a history of:

  • certain cancers, such as breast and ovarian cancer
  • blood clots
  • strokes

There are also other medical conditions that may make HRT not the best choice of treatment. Talk to your doctor about whether HRT is right for you.

At-home memory boosters

Whether or not you decide to use HRT, there are some easy ways to help improve your memory at home. Experts say aging women can help keep their brains working at their best by constantly “exercising” their minds. You can do this by:

  • solving crossword or other types of puzzles
  • playing an instrument
  • participating in team sports
  • reading
  • writing
  • learning a new language

Try to challenge your brain in as many ways possible.

Because stress can also hurt your memory, it’s a good idea to try stress-reducing activities, such as:

  • meditation
  • yoga
  • relaxation techniques
  • tai chi

In fact, a 2012 study has shown that practicing tai chi three times a week can improve results on thinking skills and memory tests.

A health-conscious lifestyle can boost your overall health, which can also improve your memory. Incorporate activities into your life, such as:

  • adequate sleep
  • regular exercise
  • healthful eating

The various types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, often have a slow onset. This makes it hard to tell what’s normal memory loss due to aging and what’s a serious problem. The Alzheimer’s Association has outlined the major differences:

Symptoms of dementia:

  • routine lack of judgment and poor decision-making
  • inability to pay bills, handle money, or make a budget
  • forgetting the day of the week, date, month, year, or season
  • having trouble carrying out a normal conversation
  • losing items and being unable to find them

Normal age-related memory problems:

  • making a poor decision occasionally
  • missing a monthly credit card payment once in a while
  • forgetting the day of the week or date and remembering later
  • sometimes having trouble remembering a word or name during a conversation
  • misplacing things occasionally but finding them later

Other symptoms of more serious dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, include:

  • difficulty making plans or solving problems
  • problems carrying out usual tasks at home, work, or during recreation
  • confusion with time or place
  • trouble comprehending visual images and spatial relationships (such as depth and distance)
  • new problems with speaking or writing
  • a lack of interest in work or social activities
  • prolonged changes in personality or mood

See your doctor right away if you recognize some of the signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in yourself or someone you care about. Detecting a serious memory problem early helps increase your chances of living a fuller and healthier life.