How To Tell The Difference Between Normal Forgetfulness And Dementia

Megan Ray  |  October 5, 2015
How To Tell The Difference Between Normal Forgetfulness And Dementia
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Forgetting things occasionally is a part of life. It's why people may have reminders on their smartphones or sticky notes on their refrigerators. As people get older they might experience more frequent instances of memory loss, but this is often a normal part of aging. So how can aging adults tell if they're experiencing the symptoms of dementia? And how do they know when it's time to tell a doctor?

Here are some tips on how to tell normal forgetfulness from dementia:

Normal age-related symptoms:
These problems can be frustrating, but they are not very serious and certainly aren't any cause for alarm. Forgetfulness comes with age. Some typical memory-loss symptoms common in older adults include:

  • Transience and absentmindedness. Harvard Medical School said that these two conditions are a normal part of the aging process. Transience is when the brain forgets some memories over time. According to the school, this could actually be a good thing, because it means the brain is removing unused memories to make room for new ones. Absentmindedness is similar in that it relates to your brain's focus. For instance, forgetting an appointment might happen simply because you weren't preoccupied with the thought of it.
  • Forgetfulness and other mental issues. According to the National Institute on Aging, there are many other health conditions that could contribute to memory loss. For example, people with depression are sometimes mistaken for having the symptoms of dementia. One reason for this may be that a person dealing with depression might be extremely preoccupied with the cause of their sadness and anxiety, the institute further stated. Constantly worrying about or obsessing over a recent tragedy can lead to forgetfulness of other topics.

Potential signs of dementia:
Unlike normal age-related forgetfulness, memory loss linked to dementia is progressive, according to Dr. William W. Pendlebury, a professor at the University of Vermont. These issues get steadily worse and the patient eventually has to move to assisted living facilities because he can no longer live on his own. 

  • Forgetting important information. The symptoms of dementia go beyond merely forgetting where an object was placed or when an appointment was scheduled. Pendlebury further stated that symptoms include forgetting names of friends and loved ones and an inability to remember some words. When an older adult shows these signs of extreme forgetfulness, it's a good idea to schedule a visit the doctor.
  • Personality change. According to the Alzheimer's Association, people with dementia might experience major changes in personality. For example, a senior in the middle stages of dementia could suddenly be more prone to aggressive behavior, paranoia or impulsiveness. Often, this is the hardest part of the disease for caregivers to deal with. The association said that it is normal for senior caregivers to feel stressed out by these symptoms. As such, it could be wise to consider using respite care services if it becomes overwhelming.
  • Disorientation. Another common symptom of dementia is the tendency to become disoriented in new environments. The University of Illinois said that this disorientation extends to both place and time. If an older adult with dementia moves to a location, the unfamiliar stimuli may induce a feeling of insecurity. When disoriented, seniors with dementia might appear lost to onlookers and become easily aggravated with their caregivers.

Age-related memory loss and dementia are very different conditions, though they may share some overlap in symptoms. However, normal forgetfulness is often caused by lack of focus and it never progresses into serious territory. Dementia, on the other hand, will get worse over time. If you're uncertain about your symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor.

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