Memory, Forgetfulness and Aging: What's Normal and What's Not?

One of the biggest concerns for seniors and their family members is memory loss. When a loved one starts forgetting things, can’t remember a conversation they’ve had recently or is showing signs of confusion, it’s common to jump to the conclusion that Mom or Dad has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.


“Forgetfulness is actually a normal sign of aging and isn’t necessarily a sign of memory decline,” says Fred Kelly, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Lexington. “Normal examples of this type of forgetfulness are missing a doctor’s appointment, forgetting where you put your keys or not remembering a conversation you had last week. They’re certainly not life-altering instances and shouldn’t be something that causes a ton of worries.”


However, Fred says there are signs that loved ones should look for to determine if forgetfulness is more than just a ‘senior moment.’


“One of the biggest concerning signs is if the senior doesn’t think anything’s wrong with them, but friends and family have large concerns,” Fred explains. “Conversely, if an older adult is worried about his or her memory loss, but the family isn’t all that worried, you’re more than likely dealing with normal signs of aging.”


Nonetheless, if forgetfulness or memory issues are causing worry for seniors or family members, it’s always a good idea to be checked out by a professional. “Certain underlying issues unrelated to dementia also can cause memory issues,” says Fred. “This can range from illness, infection, depression and certain medications.”


Fred explains that many seniors may be reluctant to speak with a medical professional about their forgetfulness because they’re concerned about being diagnosed with dementia. “No one likes to hear bad news,” says Fred. “People are worried about developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of cognitive illness, so it makes sense that they would want to sweep everything under the rug and hope that it will go away. However, this can be quite damaging for them, especially if there’s an underlying cause that could be treated.”


At the same time, it’s always best to catch dementia in the early stages because our current forms of treatment are most effective in those early stages. “In other words, it’s always good to find out what’s going on so that you can prepare and take the best course of action, even if the diagnosis is as life-changing as dementia,” says Fred.


Is It Normal or Something Else? Signs To Watch For.


Difficulty making good decisions.

We all make bad decisions from time to time, so if you goofed or did something that turned out to be a poor decision, usually, we can shrug it off as a learning experience. However, if a senior individual is constantly making poor decisions, such as donating money to anyone who calls them or starts stockpiling useless things (like collectible plates or coins advertised on late-night TV), this could potentially be a sign of an illness like dementia.


Forgetting appointments and responsibilities.

Forgetting to pay a bill or missing a doctor’s appointment isn’t necessarily a cause for massive concern. It’s easy to forget these types of things, and usually, it helps remind us to pay more attention in the future. But if you’ve noticed your loved one’s kitchen is piling up with past-due bills or they constantly are forgetting about appointments they’ve scheduled, it’s time to find out what might be causing the issue.


Not remembering what day it is.

It’s not uncommon to forget whether today is Wednesday or Friday (especially if you’re retired). And remembering the exact date can get confusing, especially following a holiday when schedules are all thrown to the wind. If your loved one forgets what day or date it is, they probably need a calendar more than a checkup. However, if they can’t remember what season we’re in or what month we’re in, it may be that something more serious is at play.


Being unable to come up with the right word.

Ever started talking about “that movie,” with “you know, the actor … with the ears?” As aggravating as these conversations can be, it’s common to forget trivial details or have to search for just the right word. Chalk it up to having too much information in your brain. But if someone is starting to ask the same questions repeatedly, is substituting similar-sounding words for everyday objects or can’t remember the names of loved ones and close friends, it’s probably time to speak to a professional.


Losing items.

If you search the entire house for your glasses, only to find them on the top of your head, don’t be alarmed – that’s just something we have to go through thanks to all the information we absorb regularly. On the other hand, if your senior loved one is constantly losing things and accusing others of hiding or stealing them, it could be a sign of something more serious.


Need some more pointers as to when memory loss is something to worry about? Here are a few other ways:


Normal: Not remembering an event from the past, but then recalling information after someone prompts them.

Concerning: Forgetting a conversation or event that just happened and being unable to recall anything even when other people provide information.


Normal: Having a difficult time remembering how to do something they don’t often do, like programming the microwave or using the controls on a new car.

Concerning: Forgetting how to do something they’ve always done, like making a particular dish or being unable to load the dishwasher properly.


Normal: Forgetting the topic of a conversation because they went off on a tangent.

Concerning: Not being able to follow a conversation and becoming confused while they or someone else is talking.


Remember, memory issues aren’t necessarily a sign of cognitive decline. When an issue surfaces that causes worry, it’s always good to get things checked out to see if the issue is being driven by something treatable. No matter what, it’s always a good idea to find the cause so that steps can be taken to help plan out a course of action.


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