Just Forgetful, or Is It Dementia?...

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March 24, 2011

Everyone becomes forgetful from time to time: forgetting where you placed the car keys, not remembering to pick up an item at the grocery store, forgetting to return a friend's phone call. And as we age, most of us become increasingly forgetful. At least half of those over age 65 say that they are more forgetful than they were when they were younger, experiencing "senior moments" about things like where they put things or recalling somebody's name.

But when does an ordinary memory lapse indicate something more serious, like early Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia? Can you brush it off as “just being forgetful,” or might it be mild cognitive impairment, a more pronounced form of memory loss that sometimes precedes dementia?

VIDEO: Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease

“We now know the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease can begin some 15 years before symptoms of mild cognitive impairment, or long before the beginning signs of a dementia surface,” said Dr. Barry Reisberg, director of the Fisher Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Resources Program at New York University Langone Medical Center. Because the onset of dementia can be so insidious, forgetfulness and other symptoms may develop over a period of many years.

Increasingly, research indicates that feeling you are forgetful may be cause for concern. A study conducted by Dr. Reisberg and colleagues found that seniors with subjective memory complaints are, over many years, 4.5 times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia than those who do not have such memory complaints. That’s one reason why it’s important to pay attention for signs of being forgetful, and to seek medical attention about early signs of dementia and a possible dementia evaluation and work-up.

In order to distinguish the ordinary forgetfulness that comes with aging from more serious problems like Alzheimer’s disease, it helps to consider some key symptoms of mild cognitive impairment and the early stages of dementia.

Forgetting a friend’s name or not remembering a lunch date is something that most people without dementia do from time to time. Someone with early dementia, though, might repeatedly forget names or plans, and forget all about the incident soon afterward. Curiously, while someone with early dementia may forget something that happened the previous evening, they may recall in detail events that happened in the more distant past, last year, say, or during their childhood.

At these early stages of dementia, family members, friends and colleagues may begin to notice that something seems wrong. Maybe your spouse or partner complains that you are forgetting social engagements at an increasing rate, or that you repeat questions often. Maybe colleagues at work have expressed concern when you forget to attend a meeting or send an important memo, or are unable to learn a new computer program. Such situations may, understandably, trigger feelings of anger and defensiveness. They can also produce anxiety, which can in turn make anyone even more forgetful. The anxiety may be particularly pronounced in someone in the early stages of dementia.

In addition to being forgetful, those in the early stages of dementia may also have problems with judgment and planning. Someone with early dementia might, for example, become distracted in preparing a recipe or forget the rules of a card game. People with dementia are also much more likely to have traffic accidents than those who do not have dementia. And while many of us are challenged when it comes to finances, someone with early dementia may find it impossible to do everyday chores, like balancing a checkbook, that they used to find easy.

READ: Clinical Stages of Alzheimer’s

READ: Top 10 Alzheimer’s Signs & Symptoms

As dementia progresses, people get even more forgetful. Someone with dementia might, for example, get lost in the neighborhood when driving home from the grocery store or forget what day it is. Those with dementia may forget simple words or replace them with strange substitutes, making them difficult to understand. Someone with dementia might also misplace things, like placing a cell phone in the refrigerator, or get confused while getting dressed. These behaviors are not common in someone without dementia.

Unusual changes in personality can also occur, like showing bursts of anger for no reason, becoming depressed or confused, or uncharacteristically clinging to a family member. And while many of us plop down on the couch to watch TV after a long day at work, someone with dementia may show little or no initiative in reaching out to friends and stare at the TV for hours or sleep all day.

Anyone who has concerns about being forgetful or has signs or symptoms like those described, particularly if they are over age 65, should speak with their doctor immediately. "If you are experiencing memory complaints, it is more important than ever to have honest conversations with your physician so he or she can monitor your symptoms and offer treatment therapies if applicable," Dr. Reisberg said. "We often see patients who would gladly talk to their doctors if they felt they were in pain or experiencing other health issues, but conversations about memory are avoided, and this is a dangerous mistake."

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While most people who are forgetful don't have dementia, a professional assessment can aid families in determining if this is forgetfulness or possible dementia. In some cases, medications or other environmental factors may be contributing to somebody becoming forgetful. Dosages can be adjusted, or new treatments prescribed, to ease the memory problems. Medical and mental health conditions, like depression or a deficiency in vitamin B12, can also make someone forgetful. These conditions are treatable and reversible.

Even if the diagnosis is Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, steps can be taken to improve quality of life. Counseling, for example, can help the person who has early dementia to assess situations like whether the patient should stay in his or her job. Taking steps like early retirement may ease anxiety and improve day-to-day functioning. Medications to ease symptoms can also be prescribed, and may be most effective, during the early stages of dementia and families can take the necessary legal and financial steps to plan more effectively for the future.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research at The Rockefeller University.

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16 Responses to Just Forgetful, or Is It Dementia?

  1. Physical activity and deliberate breathing exercises suggest that the amount of oxygen influences one’s phyical and mental health, alertness and quickness.

    Are conditions that reduce robust exervise and circulation also affect metabolism; and are these factors also essential in cellular replacememnt in the brain?

    Obviously I am not a doctor but I know how critical; oxygen is to survival and probably regrowth of cells i our bodies. So, what are the selected medications, treatments, natural practices that increase resistance to ALZHEIMER’S? I do not assume one shoe fits all. Early detection means ? constant awarewness?

    Thank you,



  2. I have got a problem with memory. I quickly forget incidents almost on daily basis. My judgement is so poor.The problem now is I even feel the pain in the head coming from inside towards the right ear. It just brings confusion in my head, hence disorder in whatever I will be doing. Please help.

  3. angela ellis says:

    my grandad has started to get mixed up with times of the day,he has increasingly become very selfish on some days the other days he seems himself he rings a family member that he is closer to than the rest of us mithering bout needing things from the shop when he doesnt is this dementia

  4. nurul hafefa says:

    i always forgot what happened on the previous day, what i did and who im with. im also cannot remember any of my password. and keep on changing it time to time. it also takes a long time for me to recall anything. and always misplaced my belonging.

  5. Joy says:

    Is it normal that for an hour i forgot where i placed my camera in seconds, i forgot that i removed my bracelet and placed it in table for a minute and i forgot that i already received my change in store?

  6. Razali says:

    I always forgot the thing that I’ve done just a moment after i finished it.Eg, just a second after i located my pencil case into my bag i start to looking for that pencil case on my table and when i couldnt find it, i start to search it entire of my room..After hours than I found it back in my bag..

  7. Kieran says:

    I often walk into rooms and forget what I’m doing and I sometimes forget words and my sentences sound confusing. I also always put things down and never remember where they are and once or twice I forgot my friend’s name. I’m only 13 so I don’t see why this would be happening. My other friends don’t have these problems.

  8. nur diyana says:

    Razali: i have same problem as you …and im 28! it start happened when im 25/26 and get worsen these days~

  9. Neil Porter says:

    have you found anything that helps with sudden loss of Memory, like you said you put your phone down and not be Abel to find it,I do this regular can you help with any ideas that you have tired please that helps.
    thanks Neil, Mr P

  10. Alexandra Thrift says:

    I suggest that the young people here who are complaining of memory loss are playing computer games too much….or just living in a virtual internet world rather than the real world.Change your lifestyle and become part of life and your memory will return.

  11. dianne says:

    I’m only in my mid 30s and I tend to be very forgetful. My partner keeps on complaining about my forgetfulness.

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  13. Emjay says:

    Is this possible for a teenager? Around 14 years old? Please answer

    • jaakshi says:

      My daughter who is only 14, was the school topper till last year. for past four months that is from the beginning of this academic year there is a lot of change in her. She is unable to concentrate in her studies and often forgetful. for example if we ask her to fetch a glass of water, within the time she walks to the kitchen forgets for what she is there for and try to do some other work.
      She confess that she is entering into a fantasy world where she has her imaginary characters and enjoys very much. We often see her speaking and laughing to herself. She says that this has been happening to her for years but only this year we notice she is unable to concentrate in studies and obviously her scores are becoming less and less.
      Please suggest a remedy or whom to consult.

  14. pat says:


    I’m terribly suffering from forgetfullness and cant learn anything new properly. Please suggest me some medicine which is safe and yet somewhat increasing memory and concentration…..Have tried yoga, ayurvedic medicine and meditation with no results…

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