When is Forgetfulness Something to Worry About?

May 7, 2018

A common misperception about dementia is that it’s a natural part of the aging process – not true! Although sometimes misunderstood to be an illness on its own, dementia  is actually an umbrella term for symptoms that can result from associated illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease (by far its most common cause), Parkinson’s, or even a one-time event, like a traumatic brain injury, Perhaps the best-known symptom associated with dementia is memory loss; with over 40% of us over 65 experiencing some form of memory deficit, it can be a bit unnerving to suffer these so-called senior moments and wonder if they might be a sign of something more serious. At one point is forgetfulness something to worry about?

First, here are some examples of normal, age-appropriate forgetfulness:

  • Misplacing everyday items like car keys, wallet, phone
  • Accidentally calling a friend or family member the wrong name, and recognizing the error
  • Occasionally not being able to come up with the desired word or name (for example a movie title or street name)
  • Memory lapses, like arriving in the kitchen and forgetting why you came in
  • Having trouble retrieving information that’s right on the tip of your tongue
  • Becoming easily distracted when reading, or having trouble remembering what you just read

When associated with normal aging, these experiences resolve with time. While it might take you a minute, you remember why you raced into the kitchen, or you apologize to your nephew for calling him by his dad’s name. Such benign lapses are most often the result of three primary age-related neurological changes — the deterioration of the hypothalamus, which stores memory; the decline in production of key proteins and hormones that help with brain cell regeneration; and decreased blood flow to the brain.

Here’s a look at some behaviors that go beyond normal aging and should not be ignored:

  • Difficulty performing every day tasks you’re used to doing, like making breakfast and paying bills
  • Feeling confused or disoriented – not knowing how you arrived somewhere, or not recognizing a familiar place
  • Frequently forgetting words, using the wrong words; garbled speech
  • Repeating the same stories or questions in the same conversation
  • Exhibiting personality changes, or behaving strangely in social situations
  • Experiencing trouble making choices or decisions; showing uncharacteristic poor judgment

As you can gather, the difference between normal difficulties and more troubling signs is often one of degrees. Occasionally forgetting people’s names as you age is normal; persistently blanking on the names of family members or close friends can be a hallmark of cognitive impairment that should be addressed.

Of course, your doctor is an essential partner in the process of determining next steps. But for more general information in the meantime, head to the Alzheimer’s Association.