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How to Distinguish Normal Forgetfulness from Dementia

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How to Distinguish Normal Forgetfulness from Dementia
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How to Distinguish Normal Forgetfulness from Dementia

November 06, 2020

Everyone is forgetful sometimes. Forgetting an item while grocery shopping, misplacing your keys, missing your exit while driving or not remembering an appointment every so often are no real causes for concern. Forgetfulness can seem to get worse when you’re experiencing stress, are especially busy, have taken on a new challenge, or haven’t been getting enough sleep. Occasional memory lapses are apart of the normal aging process, and there is probably no cause for alarm if forgetfulness or absentmindedness are not getting significantly worse or accompanied by other problems like personality changes, disorientation, frequent struggles to find the right words or difficulty completing familiar tasks.

The difference between normal forgetfulness and dementia is that dementia causes memory loss and other issues that disrupt daily life and become disabling.  

an elderly man with his hand on his face

Is Dementia a Normal Part of Aging?  

Unlike normal age-related changes in memory and thinking, which may be occasionally bothersome or frustrating but don’t significantly disrupt a person’s life, dementia is not part of the normal aging process. Dementia is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, but there are several other forms of the disease.  

Signs and Symptoms of Dementia 

According to the CDC, symptoms of dementia can vary widely from person to person. People with dementia often have problems with memory, attention, communication, reasoning, judgment, task completion, problem-solving, mood, behavior, and spatial and visual perception.

Early signs a loved one may be developing dementia include:

  • Frequently forgetting important dates and events
  • Having trouble remembering names of friends and loved ones
  • Asking for the same information over and over
  • Trouble completing and staying focused on familiar tasks (like following a recipe or balancing a checkbook)
  • Significant difficulty concentrating
  • Getting lost driving to or walking around a familiar location
  • Forgetting how to play a favorite game or participate in a favorite hobby
  • Losing track of dates and seasons
  • Not knowing where they are or how they got there
  • Difficulty reading (not due to vision problems)
  • Trouble judging distances or color/contrast \
  • Problems following a conversation or frequent trouble finding the right words
  • Constantly losing items and being unable to find them
  • Poor financial judgment
  • A decline in personal hygiene
  • Withdrawal from hobbies and social activities
  • Increased irritability and personality changes  

These signs do not necessarily mean someone is developing dementia. Many of these symptoms can also stem from emotional stress or grief, mental health issues like anxiety or depression, reactions to a new medication, and medical problems like head injuries, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disorders, infections, stroke and tumors. That’s why it’s important to consult a medical professional if your loved one has several of these symptoms, or if the symptoms seem to linger after a stressful event.

According to the National Institute on Aging, some seniors can also develop a condition known as mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. This means they have more memory or other thinking problems than other people their age, but they can usually care for themselves and participate in normal daily activities. MCI can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, but not everyone diagnosed with MCI will progress to the more severe diagnosis. The Mayo Clinic says that while about 1% to 3% of older adults develop dementia every year, studies suggest that around 10% to 15% of individuals with MCI go on to develop dementia each year. 

When to Seek Medical Help 

If you or your loved one is having trouble remembering, thinking, concentrating or participating in familiar activities and everyday tasks, it’s important to see a doctor. A thorough examination will include blood tests (and other diagnostic tests, as needed), a review of prescription medications, cognitive and mental health evaluations, and discussions about recent stressors and lifestyle choices. The results of that examination may help a doctor uncover a treatable and even reversible cause of the symptoms.

Dementia-like symptoms caused by depression, pharmaceutical side effects, drug or alcohol abuse, tumors and other structural problems in the brain, metabolic or endocrine conditions, and nutritional deficiencies can be reversible.

If the doctor suspects dementia after the examination, a course of management and treatment can be recommended. Neurodegenerative dementias, like Alzheimer’s disease, have no cure, but medications are available that can help slow their progression or reduce symptoms like disorientation, anxiety, delusions or behavioral changes. Research is underway for more effective treatments.  

Slowing the Progression of Dementia

A healthy diet, active lifestyle, memory/brain games, strong social support and community involvement can offer some protection from memory loss and may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease or related forms of dementia. Environmental modifications and breaking down tasks into simpler steps can help increase independence and safety and reduce frustration and confusion. Non-medical treatments may also help lessen symptoms and improve the quality of life for people with dementia. These include:

  • Cognitive stimulation therapy: This therapy typically involves group activities designed to improve memory, problem-solving and communication.
  • Cognitive rehabilitation: In this type of rehabilitation, the individual works with an occupational therapist or other trained professional to learn new tasks or cognitive strategies that can help improve everyday function.
  • Reminiscence therapy: This treatment uses the senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and sound to help people with dementia remember events, people and places.  

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