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

Date:

January 19, 2022
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Many older adults worry about their memory and other thinking abilities. For example, they might be concerned about taking longer than before to learn new things, or they may sometimes forget to pay a bill. These changes are usually signs of mild forgetfulness — often a normal part of aging — not serious memory problems.

What’s normal forgetfulness and what’s not?

Read and share this infographic to learn whether forgetfulness is a normal part of aging.

What’s the difference between normal, age-related forgetfulness and a serious memory problem? It’s normal to forget things once in a while as we age, but serious memory problems make it hard to do everyday things like driving, using the phone, and finding their way home.

Talk with a doctor to determine whether memory and other cognitive problems, such as the ability to clearly think and learn, are normal and what may be causing them.

Signs that it might be time to talk to a doctor include:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again
  • Getting lost in places a person knows well
  • Having trouble following recipes or directions
  • Becoming more confused about time, people, and places
  • Not taking care of oneself — eating poorly, not bathing, or behaving unsafely

Tips for dealing with forgetfulness

People with some forgetfulness can use a variety of techniques that may help them stay healthy and deal with changes in their memory and mental skills. Here are some tips:

  • Can your care receiver learn a new skill?
  • Follow a daily routine.
  • Plan tasks, make to-do lists, and use memory tools such as calendars and notes.
  • Put care receiver’s wallet or purse, keys, phone, and glasses in the same place each day.
  • Help them stay involved in activities that can help both the mind and body.
  • Spend time with friends and family.*
  • Get enough sleep, generally seven to eight hours each night.
  • Exercise and eat well.
  • Prevent or control high blood pressure.
  • Limit or eliminate access to alcohol.
  • Watch for signs of depression and anxiety. Get help for your care receiver or yourself, if needed. See our blogs on depression and anxiety
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, take precautions to protect your care receiver, yourself and others.

Mild cognitive impairment

Some older adults have a condition called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, meaning they have more memory or other thinking problems than other people their age. People with MCI can usually take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s.

Signs of MCI include:

  • Losing things often
  • Forgetting to go to important events or appointments
  • Having more trouble coming up with desired words than other people of the same age

In someone with MCI, seeing a doctor every six to 12 months to track changes in memory and other thinking skills over time is essential. There may be habits and behaviors you can change and activities they can do to help maintain memory and thinking skills.

Dementia and aging

Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It includes the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, learning, and reasoning — and behavioral abilities to the extent that it interferes with a person’s quality of life and activities. Memory loss, though common, is not the only sign of dementia. People with dementia may also have problems with language skills, visual perception, or paying attention. Some people have personality changes.

While there are different forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form in people over age 65. The chart below explains some differences between normal signs of aging and Alzheimer’s.

Differences between normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease

Normal aging

Alzheimer’s disease

Making a bad decision once in a while

Making poor judgments and decisions a lot of the time

Missing a monthly payment

Problems taking care of monthly bills

Forgetting which day it is and remembering it later

Losing track of the date or time of year

Sometimes forgetting which word to use

Trouble having a conversation

Losing things from time to time

Misplacing things often and being unable to find them

When to visit the doctor for memory loss

If your care receiver has problems remembering recent events or thinking clearly, talk with a doctor. He or she may suggest a thorough checkup to see what might be causing the symptoms. You may also wish to talk with the doctor about opportunities to participate in research on cognitive health and aging.

At the doctor visit, he or she can perform tests and assessments, which may include a brain scan, to help determine the source of memory problems. The doctor may also recommend seeing a neurologist, which is a doctor who specializes in treating diseases of the brain and nervous system.

Memory and other thinking problems have many possible causes, including depression, an infection, or medication side effects. Sometimes, the problem can be treated, and cognition improves. Other times, the problem is a brain disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which cannot be reversed.

Finding the cause of the problems is important for determining the best course of action. Once you know the cause, you can make the right treatment and caregiving plan. People with memory problems should make a follow-up appointment to check their memory every six to 12 months. Be observant of changes in memory.

A note about unproven treatments

Some people are tempted by untried or unproven “cures” that claim to make the brain sharper or prevent dementia. Be cautious of pills, supplements, brain training computer games, or other products that promise to improve memory or prevent brain disorders. These might be unsafe, a waste of money, or both. They might even interfere with other medical treatments. Currently, there is no drug or treatment that prevents Alzheimer’s or related dementias.

However, there are currently several drugs available by prescription to safely treat the symptoms of early and mid-stage Alzheimer’s. If you have been diagnosed with dementia, your doctor may suggest that you take one of them.

How to protect someone from unproven treatments:

  • Beware if the product claim seems too promising and if it conflicts with what you’ve heard from the health care provider.
  • Question any product that claims to be a “scientific breakthrough.” Companies marketing these products often take advantage of people when they are most vulnerable and looking for a miracle cure.
  • Check with the doctor or health care professional before buying any product, including those labeled as dietary supplements, that promises to improve memory or prevent dementia.
  • Report any products or supplements being advertised as a treatment for Alzheimer’s or other diseases on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website.

Read about this topic in Spanish. Lea sobre este tema en español.

For more information about memory loss and forgetfulness

NIA Alzheimer’s and related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
800-438-4380 (toll-free)
adear@nia.nih.gov
www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers
The NIA ADEAR Center offers information and free print publications about Alzheimer’s and related dementias for families, caregivers, and health professionals. ADEAR Center staff answer telephone, email, and written requests and make referrals to local and national resources.

Alzheimers.gov
www.alzheimers.gov
Explore the Alzheimers.gov portal for information and resources on Alzheimer’s and related dementias from across the federal government.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
800-352-9424 (toll-free)
braininfo@ninds.nih.gov
www.ninds.nih.gov

Alzheimer’s Association
800-272-3900 (toll-free)
866-403-3073 (TTY/toll-free)
info@alz.org
www.alz.org 

Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
866-232-8484 (toll-free)
info@alzfdn.org
www.alzfdn.org

Reference: National Institute on Aging, This content is provided by the NIH National Institute on Aging (NIA). NIA scientists and other experts review this content to ensure it is accurate and up to date. Content reviewed: October 21, 2020

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