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Normal Forgetfulness vs. Dementia: How to Tell the Difference

Jun 10, 2024
Normal Forgetfulness vs. Dementia: How to Tell the Difference
As you get older, or you watch your parents age, you may wonder if losing the car keys or struggling to remember a name is a sign of dementia. What’s normal forgetfulness, and what’s not? How can you tell? And what should you do about it?

Even though heart disease kills more than five times as many people per year in the United States than Alzheimer’s disease does, Alzheimer’s — the most common form of dementia — inspires more fear. In a Medicare Advantage survey, 79% said they were “somewhat or very fearful” of Alzheimer’s disease vs. 76% for heart disease. Only cancer beat them both, with 84%.

Dementia doesn’t just kill a person’s body over a long, lingering period. It wipes out that person’s memories and identity and sometimes drastically changes their personality. 

If you’re afraid of dementia — either in yourself or a parent — you may worry every time you or they stumble for a word or misplace a phone or car keys. However, everyone at every age can be somewhat forgetful.

At Advanced Medical Care, our team of neurologists encourages you to pay attention to your mental state. Although there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or any kind of dementia, the earlier it’s caught, the sooner you or your parent can benefit from interventions, including behavioral therapies and medications.

Here, we address the difference between forgetfulness and dementia and explain when you should contact a professional about your brain function. 

Normal forgetfulness

If you spend a lot of time around people younger than you are, you’ll notice pretty quickly that a certain amount of forgetfulness and absentmindedness is just part of the human experience. You may even remember being forgetful in your own youth!

However, as you age and become more aware of the increased risks for dementia, even those normal stumbles for a movie star’s name or your tendency to misplace your phone takes on a more ominous tone. You may be especially attuned to your own forgetfulness if Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia runs in your family.

In addition, aging brings changes to your brain, just as it brings them to all areas of your body. Your skin isn’t as elastic and strong as it used to be. Your brain, too, may slow down.

So, what’s a normal amount of forgetfulness for the average healthy adult? You can feel more relaxed about your mental state if you:

Forget facts 

Much as you’d like to have a highly superior autobiographical memory or total recall for your life, like actress Marilu Henner, it’s normal to forget things, especially if you don’t regularly use those facts or memories. 

Are absentminded

If you don’t pay attention to your actions, such as putting down your phone or taking your supplements, it’s easy to forget where the phone is, or whether it’s time to swallow fish oil again. You may even forget to pay a bill from time to time.

Stumble over words or names

You try to think of a word or name, but you can’t. In fact, you may be fixated on another name or word that you know is the wrong one, a situation called blocking. This becomes more common with age, but people find about half of blocked memories within a minute. 

Abnormal forgetfulness

When forgetfulness becomes abnormal, it’s usually accompanied by other behavioral changes or odd, unconscious choices. For instance, you don’t just forget where you put your phone; you discover it in the refrigerator. Some other signs of abnormal forgetfulness that need investigation include:

  • Making poor judgments or decisions frequently (spending too much money, taking rides home with strangers)
  • Problems with and stress around taking care of monthly bills; forgetting to pay them frequently
  • Not knowing what day it is or what time of year
  • Not knowing what year it is or who is president
  • Repeating yourself frequently during a conversation
  • Difficulty having a conversation
  • Frequently misplacing things and not being able to find them
  • Difficulty following a storyline on TV or in books
  • Forgetting the names of close friends or relatives

In the early stages of dementia, you may not recognize the signs in yourself, although your loved ones may notice them. However, as the disease progresses, you may feel frustrated by your inability to think, recall, converse, and read as fluently as you once did.

Catching cognitive decline early

The earlier you notice cognitive decline, the easier it is to intervene and slow down its progress. If you believe that you’re struggling with your memory, or if your parent has signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, your first best step is a thorough medical examination and diagnosis so we can institute a treatment plan ASAP.

Do you struggle with your memory or have a parent or partner that you suspect has dementia? Contact the experienced, caring providers at Advanced Medical Care today in Queens and Brooklyn, New York, to schedule a neurological evaluation.

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