When to Worry About Forgetfulness

By Deborah Bier, PhD

When to Worry About ForgetfulnessI’m in my mid-50s, and I forget things.

Where did I last lay down my car keys? What did I need at the grocery store, now that I’m standing in its aisles? What day is that important meeting scheduled? What did I need to bring to it? Did I remember to switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer before they got moldy? Did I pick up new printer cartridges, or did I just think about getting them?

We middle-aged people caring for parents, children, spouses, paid work, personal projects, volunteer work — and somehow squeezing in a little time for ourselves — often become forgetful and distracted. When this happens, many of us worry that we are acting a lot like elders we know who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias.

We wonder: do we have it, too? (Alzheimer’s Association, n.d.)

Well, maybe. There are early-onset cases of dementia involving people in their 40s, 50s and 60s. But this is not usually the cause of such forgetfulness. We likely have so much on our plates, as we spin ever faster through our lives, that we simply cannot retrieve all the information we want when we need it. But still, we wonder: are we experiencing “normal” forgetfulness?

We may also wonder about our elder parents, friends, co-workers, spouses or other aging loved ones. Should we be concerned about certain behaviors we notice? How do you tell the difference between symptoms of dementia and the forgetfulness that comes with everyday functioning as we age?

Below are seven signs that you’re just fine. Consult your physician if you’re still worried, or if you feel these signs point to something abnormal.

  1. Remembering later. You’ve forgotten a name, a word, or part of experience. Fifteen minutes later — either spontaneously or after thinking it over — it comes back. That’s “normal” forgetfulness. Not being able to remember an experience, name or word — or even a person or place that should be familiar — is not “normal” forgetfulness. (Alzheimer’s Association, n.d.).
  2. Reminders work. Being able to reconnect to a name, word or experience after someone or something reminds you points to “normal” forgetfulness. The reminder can be anything: it can be visual, a word or phrase, a story, and so on. Reminding might not help memory recall in cases where forgetfulness is not “normal;” the information may remain missing. (Alzheimer’s Association, 2011).
  3. Using tools to remember. Being able to effectively use tools such as notes or a calendar to compensate for forgetting leans toward “normal” forgetfulness. Decaying or missing ability to accurately check a calendar or notes to aid memory is not “normal” forgetfulness. (Alzheimer’s Association, 2011).
  4. Forgetting once or twice. After forgetting a piece of information, then remembering or being successfully reminded, it should be more easily retrievable again later in cases of “normal” forgetfulness. Forgetting again later, especially if it is complex, likely also is “normal.” But repeatedly forgetting the same thing, or never being able to recall anything about the subject is not an indication of “normal” forgetfulness. (Alzheimer’s Association, 2011).
  5. Too many balls in the air. Memory problems that come about when trying to do too many things at once – or at times of high stress or great fatigue – is probably “normal” forgetfulness. Diminished ability to remember how to do normal tasks, or an inability to figure out the sequence used in normal, daily tasks, is not “normal” forgetfulness. (Alzheimer’s Association, n.d.).
  6. Acting otherwise typically. Feeling frustrated with forgetting, but exhibiting the usual personality and behavior while responding to such challenges, points to “normal” forgetfulness. Uncharacteristic anger, defensiveness, denial, or changes in personality, reduced problem-solving ability or deteriorating judgment may indicate that the memory problem is not “normal.” (Moore, 2009)
  7. Doing self-care. Being forgetful, but still able to consistently perform basic needs such as bathing, dressing, and eating is “normal” forgetfulness. Uncharacteristically poor hygiene, unchanged or soiled clothing, weight loss due to forgetting to eat – or weight gain due to eating a meal multiple times having forgotten previous one(s) just consumed – are not indications of “normal” forgetfulness. (Alzheimer’s Association, n.d.)

Abnormal forgetfulness isn’t only about failing to remember. It’s more complex than that. Be concerned when you see a pattern of deteriorating functioning, not just correctable incidents of forgetting. Loss of previous abilities or negative changes in long-established, characteristic behavior and personality patterns indicates a need to seek help.

Understanding normal forgetfulness can help us more gracefully adjust to the challenges of healthy aging. We need to give ourselves and our loved ones more time to recall events, names, and words as we age, because “normal” recall can take longer. Knowing that can help us plan to build in extra time for certain events or tasks.

Fatigue and stress are great memory stealers regardless of whether dementia is involved. Insomniac dementia patients or those exhausted by anxiety will function more poorly. Many younger people who care for aging loved ones exhibit memory slips that parallel their exhaustion level.

At that point caregivers often start worrying that they, too, are developing what their parent has. It seems so eerily familiar that they often say it’s as if dementia is contagious. Though there is a genetic component to some dementias, it’s more likely that anyone acting as a primary caregiver to a person with dementia is experiencing “normal,” overwhelmed, fatigued, stressed-out, not-enough-hours-in-the-day forgetfulness. Hopefully, this offers some solace to the weary.

References

Alzheimer’s Association, Massachusetts/New Hampshire Chapter. (n.d.) Caring for People with Alzheimer’s Disease: A Habilitation Training Curriculum. (Watertown, MA). p. 68

Alzheimer’s Association, Massachusetts/New Hampshire Chapter. (August 2, 2011) Caring for People with Alzheimer’s Disease: A Habilitation Training Curriculum [Training Course]. (Lawrence, MA)

Moore, B. L. (2009) Matters of the Mind and the Heart: Meeting the Challenges of Alzheimer Care. New York: Strategic Book Publishing.

 

APA Reference
Bier, D. (2012). When to Worry About Forgetfulness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/when-to-worry-about-forgetfulness/00013100
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.