08 Jul, 2022

Does your senior mom misplace her car keys once in a while? Or does she come home from grocery shopping without some essential items on the list? At first glance, you may think of these slips as signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s, but forgetfulness may also result from stress or aging.

People under extreme stress may have poor concentration, making them appear to have memory problems. However, occasional forgetfulness or mild memory loss can be part of aging, too. Forgetting car keys, an item on a grocery list, and even names of acquaintances happen to everyone at least once

But memory loss is also a precursor to early dementia and Alzheimer’s. When a senior loved one forgets to lock the front door or turn off the stove after cooking can be due to their declining ability as dementia eats away at their cognitive functions.

When can you tell if forgetfulness is normal or a symptom of cognitive impairment? If the inability to remember things affects a senior relative’s daily functions and relationships, you should consider it a warning sign to visit the doctor for a checkup.

Distinguishing Normal Forgetfulness with Memory Loss

According to the Alzheimer Society, almost 40% of people aged 65 and older experience some type of memory loss. Approximately 5 to 8% of older adults age 60 and above will live with dementia, based on the projection from the WHO.

One of your clues to differentiate age-related from dementia-related memory loss is the frequency of occurrence. Your senior parent may forget where they place their wallets or important documents — this case isn’t worrying if you can count the instances of it happening.

Meanwhile, memory problems due to dementia occasionally occur at first but progress more frequently, affecting one’s life and relationships. If memory concerns prevent them from finding locations, joining in conversations, or having an active social life, it may indicate a cognitive decline.

Signs of normal, age-related forgetfulness

Like other parts of the body, the brain deteriorates with age, particularly the hippocampus, which is involved in storing and retrieving memory. Apart from this, the proteins and hormones responsible for protecting, repairing, and stimulating the brain cells also decline. Hence, older people experience memory problems now and then.

Signs of normal, age-related forgetfulness include:

  • Simple forgetfulness, such as forgetting where they place personal belongings.
  • Forgetting what day it is but remembering it later.
  • Slow to remember names, events, or dates.
  • Forgetting which word to use sometimes.
  • Slower reaction times.
  • Difficulty recalling new information or taking longer to learn new things.

As the brain ages, it takes longer to learn new information, recall specific details, and remember events from the past.

Signs of memory loss related to dementia

Symptoms of memory problems vary depending on the type of dementia, but general signs include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
  • Confusion with time or place.
  • Difficulty handling complex tasks.
  • Making poor decisions.
  • Wandering and getting lost in a familiar neighborhood.
  • Taking longer to complete everyday tasks, like paying bills, washing the dishes, etc.
  • Memory problems that carry a change in personality or behavior.
  • Repeating words and phrases.

While it’s common to forget what day it is, a senior with early dementia may entirely forget the day or year. A sign of an alarming memory concern is when they forget things habitually.

If your loved one is living with you, ask yourself these questions to recognize normal forgetfulness from dementia:

  • How often does your senior parent forget things?
  • Do they lose track of the day, month, or time of the year?
  • Do they forget to pay their monthly bills?
  • Do they have trouble remembering recent events?
  • Do they have difficulty processing what you just discussed with them?
  • Do they have trouble having conversations?
  • Do memory problems make them act or behave differently? (Do they feel frustrated or behave inappropriately in public places

To some extent, these questions will tell you whether memory issues are normal or potential dementia symptoms.

When to see a doctor

If you suspect forgetfulness is related to dementia, consult your doctor for an evaluation. Visit a healthcare professional when memory lapses are prevalent and become increasingly noticeable. Even if they don’t manifest prominent dementia symptoms, an immediate checkup can help your doctor diagnose possible early dementia and consequently develop an early intervention plan to delay the disease progression. For reversible dementia cases, timely intervention may help reverse memory loss.

Preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s

There’s no option to prevent or cure dementia or Alzheimer’s completely. Scientists continue to study the link between the brain and cognitive impairment to understand what causes brain conditions and figure out the best treatments.

In the meantime, here are some tips to minimize the risk of cognitive decline:

    1. Keep the mind active.

    Mentally stimulating activities, such as word games, puzzles, and reading, might delay the onset of dementia and decrease its impact.

    2. Regular exercise.

    Seniors living a sedentary lifestyle have a higher risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart diseases—these conditions raise the likelihood of developing dementia.

    Doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week, such as walking, jogging, or cycling, can improve brain health. Hobbies, like hiking, gardening, or dancing, will also help a loved one stay active.

    3. Quit smoking and excessive drinking.

    Based on research, smokers are 30 to 75% more likely to develop dementia than nonsmokers. Meanwhile, alcohol abuse can make a person three times more at risk of dementia.

    If a relative is involved in these habits, therapy might help them give up smoking or excessive drinking.

    4. Eat a healthy, balanced diet.

    Rather than ordering from fast-food restaurants, prepare meals that include vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Choose low-fat protein sources, such as beans, fish, and skinless poultry, over meats high in saturated fat. Seeds, legumes, and nuts are also excellent brain foods.

Why It’s Important to Know the Difference

Dementia and common age-related memory loss may have overlapping symptoms, but they’re not the same. Diminishing brain ability due to aging often stems from stress, overthinking, and the inability to focus on the present moment. It never advances into a serious problem. In contrast, dementia is progressive, so sporadic memory loss issues turn severe with time.

If you’re uncertain about a senior loved one’s memory loss, it’s best to meet with your doctor for a memory assessment. You’ll have more options to slow down the progress of dementia if your doctor can diagnose and provide interventions early.


Syed Rizvi


Syed has years of experience dealing with people, understanding their needs, and helping them find solutions to their problems.
As a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), Certified Dementia Practitioner (CDP), Certified Montessori Dementia Care Professional (CMDCP), Syed is committed to working closely with Senior and their family knowing what is it like for individuals facing a challenging time, at times groping in dark trying to figure what is the appropriate next step or care level for their unique situation.
Syed and Senex Memory Advisors are fully committed to working closely with families in creating a personalized, step-by-step process memory care plan at zero cost.

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