Normal Aging vs. Memory Loss: When It’s “Something More”

One of the biggest worries seniors and their loved ones have is developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of cognitive decline. We’re all very aware that the first sign of these diseases is memory loss, so when Mom or Dad starts to become forgetful, can’t find their keys, forget conversations they’ve just had or become confused easily, it’s natural to wonder whether it’s a “senior moment” … or “something more.”


“Forgetfulness can actually be a normal sign of aging as well as a sign of memory issues,” says Erica Labb, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Westford. “Normal forgetfulness – like forgetting an appointment occasionally, or not remembering where you put your keys or forgetting about a conversation you had last week is usually mild, not life-altering, and isn’t something that should necessarily be worried about. However, there are certain signs to watch for that could signal that there’s something more significant at play.”


The biggest sign to watch for, says Erica, is when family members and friends are concerned with issues they’re seeing in their senior loved one … but the senior individual doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with them.


“The general rule of thumb is that if the older adult is worried about their memory loss, and the family doesn’t, it’s more than likely a normal sign of aging,” Erica explains. “However, if the family members are concerned about memory issues and the senior doesn’t think there’s anything wrong, it’s time to get things checked out by a physician.”


Of course, anything that causes concern to the senior or family members should be checked out, says Erica. “Just because forgetfulness is a sign of normal aging doesn’t mean that there isn’t an underlying cause,” she says. “Certain medications, illnesses, depression and even infections can cause memory lapses in older adults, so it’s always a good idea to check with a doctor if something is bothering you.”


Erica says that a lot of seniors and family members are reluctant to talk to a physician about memory issues and forgetfulness because they’re worried about bad news. “People are afraid of developing dementia,” she says. “It makes complete sense that they would want to avoid getting that news for as long as possible because they don’t want to be put into ‘a home’ or otherwise deal with the reality of the situation. But because there are many different reasons why forgetfulness occurs, it’s always best to look into any changing behaviors to see what can be done. It’s possible that there’s an underlying cause that can be cured.”


Even if forgetfulness and memory issues are caused by Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, Erica says it’s best to catch the issue early so that treatment can be started as soon as possible. “There are medications and treatments that can be started in the early stages of dementia that can help stall or slow the decline for some time,” she says. “There are also many lifestyle factors that can be adopted in the early stages to help preserve quality of life for as long as possible. Catching the disease early also gives the individual and their family time to process the diagnosis and put plans into place that will ensure health and happiness for the individual throughout their dementia journey.”


Normal or Not? Signs To Watch For

Poor decision-making.

None of us are perfect, and we’ve all made a bad decision here and there. If someone is making poor decisions once in a while, like joining an MLM or buying something expensive they don’t need, it generally isn't a cause for concern, especially if it becomes a “learning experience.” However, if a senior is making bad decisions regularly, like donating money to every telemarketer who reaches out or is buying “collectables” that are being advertised on late-night TV, this could be a sign of cognitive decline.


Missing dates or deadlines.

Even in the age of Google Calendar and bill autopay, it seems easier than ever to forget to pay a bill or miss an appointment. If a loved one forgets to pay a doctor’s bill occasionally or misses something they’ve scheduled, it’s normally nothing to fret about (especially if the mistake is remembered fairly quickly after the occurrence). However, if “past due” bills start stacking up and a senior starts forgetting appointments – especially regularly scheduled ones like a weekly coffee date – it’s time to take a closer look at what might be causing the issue.


Forgetting the day.

To be fair, 2020 made it pretty obvious that forgetting what day it is can be somewhat easy. And when someone is retired, Saturday can look an awful lot like Monday can look like Wednesday … you get the picture. If a senior loved one can’t remember if it’s the weekend or the middle of the week, that’s pretty normal. However, if someone starts forgetting what month it is, what season it is or what decade it is, that’s a sign that something serious is probably going on.


Having a word on the “tip of your tongue.”

As we get older, our brains simply become overwhelmed with all the data and trivia we’ve learned over the course of a lifetime. Eventually, something’s got to give … which is why older people so often forget things like the name of “that actor” or search for a very specific word that’s on the “tip of their tongue.” This is pretty common and normally nothing to worry about. However, if loved one’s are starting to ask questions over and over again, are having difficulty remembering simple or everyday words, or aren’t remembering the names of close friends and loved ones, it’s time to speak with a professional.


Losing items.

All of us have, at some point or another, forgotten where the keys are or have searched the entire house for your glasses (only to find them on the top of your head). That’s just another sign of “your brain has too much information in it on a regular basis and something’s got to go every once in a while.” However, if a senior is constantly losing their wallet, purse or other important item – especially if they think someone is stealing from them and hiding things from them – it’s time to check that out to see what’s going on, mentally and physically.


Here are just a few other ways to tell whether something is “normal” or when it might be something to worry about:


Normal: Forgetting a past conversation or event that is easily recalled once getting some context and information from others.

Concerning: Forgetting a conversation or event that just happened, and getting more information from other people doesn’t “jog a memory.”


Normal: Having a hard time remembering how to do something that’s just been taught, like the controls on a new car or programming the DVR.

Concerning: Forgetting how to do something that’s been part of someone’s life for years, like baking a cake or sewing on a button.


Normal: Forgetting the course of a conversation because it went off on a tangent.

Concerning: Not being able to follow a conversation or completely forgetting what was said.


Again, it’s important to remember that memory issues aren’t necessarily a sign of brain disorder. The most important thing to do is to look into any issues that seem worrisome. Remember that other disorders can mimic dementia, and intervention can help clear up the issue. No matter what, it’s always a good idea to find out what the underlying issue is, no matter what, so steps can be taken to ensure a happy, healthy, fulfilled life for now and in the future.


Comprehensive Memory Care

Bridges® by EPOCH at Westford delivers highly specialized memory care assisted living for those with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Our resident-centered approach focuses on providing dignity, purpose and moments of joy in daily life for those in all stages of the disease. We offer a wellness-focused lifestyle that centers around a resident’s current skills and abilities, not those that have been lost to dementia.


Life-Enriching Programs

Our team members take an active role in getting to know each resident on a personal level to deliver programming that is meaningful to them. We account for the preferences, interests, needs and abilities of our residents to connect with them and encourage their involvement in daily life and boost self-esteem.


Warm, Residential Atmosphere

Featuring a stunning residential design, every inch of our community has been designed to benefit those with memory loss. Attributes such as soft colors, directional cues and aromatherapy create a soothing and secure environment where residents feel comfortable, safe and at home.

Bridges® by EPOCH is New England's largest stand-alone memory care assisted living provider.

Contact us today to learn more.