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Just Forgetful, or Is It Dementia?

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?

“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.

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.”

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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  • Alice Carroll said:

    "Thanks for pointing out that we should be vigilant when it comes to forgetfulness in seniors. My grandfather is quite a talkative person who tends to tell stories about his youth but I noticed that he has become more silent these past few years. Maybe I should start looking into some memory care services for him just in case. https://gardenviewcarecenter.com/memory-dementia-care/".

  • rachel frampton said:

    "My sister's current problem is she tends to forget almost everything such as meeting and social gathering, which then affects her job. It's surprising to learn that being unable to learn a new computer program could also be a sign of dementia, and this is what's bothering her as well. If it's confirmed that she has the said condition, I do hope that there's a program that can train someone like her.http://dementiabusinessconsulting.com/services/".

  • Tyson Coolidge said:

    "I like what you said about it being an early sign of dementia to forget names. My mom has been having trouble remembering her friend's names recently. I'll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for memory care that can help her with this. https://spruce-point.com/life-journeys-memory-care/".

  • Daphne Gilpin said:

    "Thanks for explaining that it's important to be honest with the doctor about memory issues, even though some people view those issues as more embarrassing than pain or other physical health problems. My mother-in-law has been having a lot of confusion about time, and also has problems remembering to do little things like get the mail. I'm glad I read your article because I feel a lot more prepared to help her through the process of talking to a doctor and finding the right memory care to help her out. ".

  • Misty said:

    "I dont know if this is the same thing or not but maybe someone can help me. I am a little worried about my husband. Ive been with him for 5 years now and ive notices that when he is stressed or tired he kind of "goes away" like his brain shuts off for a while. When this happens his pupils get big and he doesnt hear me or anything around him. It usually lasts from 30 seconds to a minute. He sometimes rubs his head and repeats questions during this like "whats wrong" when nothing is going on at all and he doesnt hear a response. Over the years I have gotten used to it and I just kind of ignore it now. I have told him about it and he doesnt remember it at all. I am not sure if its a memory problem or not. I actually thought maybe it was a ptsd thing because he was in the military for 7 years. Lately i have been doing some reasearch. If my explanation of this hasnt confused everyone can someone tell me what they think? Thanks.".

  • Lewis said:

    "Hi I'm nearly 35 and my memory has always been bad but it has got worst especially my short term memory started with losing my keys now it's everything I put down so last year I went to the doctors and said I think I have dementia.. He rushed it off and sent me for a blood test witch was fine.. Now ten months on I went back complaining of head aches so he sent me for an MRI scan and they found some activity on the left side of my brain something to do with white matter when I was trying to read the screen.. They said it was inconclusive as to what it was.. Doctor said could be something could be nothing.. But my appointment to see the neurologist isn't for another 12weeks or so and my anxiety levels have gone threw the roof with worrie and my simptoms have got really but .. Can anyone please give me any answers please .".

  • La said:

    "I'm in 20. These symptoms are happening in me. I'm used to be not a forgetful person. My family is not much concerned about my problem, they don't think I need to check for doctor and they just said "you are careless". What I want to know is that I should go to doctor or not? Hospital, clinic, doctors are like I go when I get sick. Please reply!!!".

  • jaakshi said:

    "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.".

  • pat said:

    "Hello, 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...".

  • Emjay said:

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

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