Is my forgetfulness normal?

As you get older, you may find your memory doesn’t always work as well as it used to. But just because you can be a bit forgetful at times, doesn’t mean you have dementia.

Key points about forgetfulness 

  1. It’s normal for memory and other thinking skills to get a little bit worse as you get older, but it's not part of normal aging for them to get a lot worse.
  2. Dementia is not the only cause of memory loss. In fact, most people who sometimes forget things don’t have dementia.
  3. Other causes for memory problems include aging, physical and mental health issues, stress, certain medicines and mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
  4. Unless your forgetfulness is progressive, significant, impacting on your day to day life and persistent, it’s not considered a sign of Alzheimer's or other types of dementia. 
  5. However, if your forgetfulness is affecting your ability to work, live independently, do hobbies or maintain a social life, or if you have any concerns about your memory, talk to your doctor.

What causes forgetfulness?

Minor forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, although significant forgetfulness is not.

As you get older, changes occur in all parts of your body, including your brain. This means it might take longer to learn new things, you might not remember information as well as you used to, or you lose things like your glasses. 

It’s also normal for your memory not to work well when you are distracted or concentrating on too many things at the same time. That's why you’re more likely to forget things when you’re stressed. Being physically or mental ill can also make you forgetful temporarily. 

What is normal forgetfulness?

The following types of memory loss are all normal and not a sign of dementia:

Transience – the tendency to forget facts or events over time. Memory has a use-it-or-lose-it quality: as you get older there is more to remember – or forget!
Absentmindedness – forgetting because you don’t pay close enough attention. You forget where you just put your pen because you didn't focus on where you put it in the first place. You were thinking of something else (or, perhaps, nothing in particular), so your brain didn't encode the information securely.
Blocking – someone asks you a question and the answer is right on the tip of your tongue. Sometimes what stops you remembering is a memory similar to the one you're looking for, and you retrieve the wrong one.
Misattribution – this occurs when you remember something accurately in part, but misattribute some detail, like the time, place or person involved. As you age, you absorb fewer details when acquiring information due to not concentrating and processing information as rapidly. And old memories are especially prone to misattribution.
Suggestibility – this is the vulnerability of your memory to the power of suggestion. Information you learn about something after the fact becomes incorporated into your memory of it.
Bias – when your perceptions are being encoded in your brain, they’re filtered by your personal biases: experiences, beliefs, prior knowledge and even your mood. And when you retrieve a memory, your biases can influence what information you actually recall.
Persistence – the persistence of memories of traumatic events, negative feelings and ongoing fears is another form of memory problem. It is related to PTSD and depression, but is not a symptom of dementia.

When is forgetfulness a sign of dementia?

Often, memory loss that disrupts your life is one of the first signs of dementia. Other early signs might include:

  • asking the same questions repeatedly
  • forgetting common words when speaking
  • mixing words up, eg, saying ‘bed’ instead of ‘table’
  • taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe
  • misplacing items in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer
  • getting lost while walking or driving in a familiar area
  • having changes in mood or behaviour for no apparent reason.

Differences between normal forgetfulness and problem memory 

Normal forgetfulness

 Problem memory

Where you left things

Forgetting what a credit card is for

Using lists to remember

Not understanding what a list is for

Worried about memory

Lack of awareness of memory problem, forgetting what you have done

Differences between normal aging and dementia 

Normal aging

 Dementia

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

Source: Do memory problems always mean Alzheimer's disease? National Institute on Aging, US, 2018

What are some other reasons for forgetfulness?

There are other reasons for becoming more forgetful. Most of these are temporary and can be treated.

  • Certain medications or a combination of medications can cause forgetfulness or confusion.
  • A head injury from a fall or accident can cause memory problems, even if you don't lose consciousness.
  • Stress, anxiety or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating and other problems that disrupt daily activities.
  • Chronic alcoholism can seriously impair mental abilities. Alcohol can also cause memory loss by interacting with medications.
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency can be common in older adults can cause memory problems. Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells.
  • An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) can result in forgetfulness and other thinking problems.
  • A tumour or infection in your brain can cause memory problems or other dementia-like symptoms.

What is mild cognitive impairment (MCI)?

MCI is when your memory or mental function gets worse, but it's not enough of a problem to affect your day-to-day life and activities. 

MCI is the stage between normal age-related memory loss and the more serious symptoms of dementia. While you, your family or close friends will be aware of this decline in your memory, unlike people who have advanced dementia, you can still be independent in your daily life. 

If you have MCI, you have an increased risk of developing dementia, especially if your main difficulty is with your memory. The greater the level of memory impairment the greater the risk of developing dementia. However, some people with mild cognitive impairment don't get worse, and a few eventually return to normal. 

If you have MCI, see your GP every year. Keeping yourself as healthy as possible can help minimise the risk of dementia developing.

How can I prevent forgetfulness or MCI becoming dementia?

Some dementia risk factors are difficult or impossible to change, such as aging and genes. But there are lifestyle factors that affect your risk. By changing these you could reduce your risk of dementia by up to 30%.

The 5 key things to do are to look after your heart, be physically active, follow a healthy diet, challenge your brain and enjoy social activity. Read more about reducing your risk of dementia and proven ways to keep your brain healthy.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about forgetfulness. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Overview of memory loss, mild cognitive impairment and dementia HealthInfo, NZ, 2019

References

  1. Memory loss and dementia PatientInfo, UK, 2017 
  2. Memory loss: When to seek help Mayo Clinic, US, 2019
  3. Do memory problems always mean Alzheimer's disease? National Institute on Aging, US, 2018
  4. Forgetfulness — 7 types of normal memory problems Harvard Health Publishing, US

Reviewed by

Dr Helen Kenealy is a geriatrician and general physician working at Counties Manukau DHB. She has a broad range of interests and has worked in a variety of settings including inpatient rehabilitation, orthgeriatrics and community geriatrics.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB