Forgetfulness: What's Normal and What's Not?

Medically Reviewed By Susan W. Lee, DO
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Although forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging, memory loss can also indicate a more serious condition, such as dementia. Determining the underlying cause of your memory concerns will help determine the best treatment plan for your situation. Memory loss and forgetfulness are common concerns for aging adults, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

There are a number of potential causes of forgetfulness, some of which are minor and some of which can be life threatening. By understanding what’s normal and what’s not, you can get an accurate assessment of your symptoms and take steps toward treatment, if necessary.

This article defines forgetfulness and discusses possible symptoms that might occur alongside it. It also looks into what causes memory loss and forgetfulness, the differences between normal forgetfulness and dementia, and when to contact a doctor. 

Normal forgetfulness with age vs. dementia

Forgetfulness is an occasional inability to remember that results from changes in the brain. It can be a typical part of aging or a symptom of another condition or disease. When you experience forgetfulness, you may find it harder to recall information or events, learn new things, or keep track of items. 

Because memory loss is a primary symptom of dementia, many people who experience forgetfulness may worry that they have symptoms of a serious condition, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

How to tell the difference between forgetfulness and dementia

The primary factor that differentiates dementia from typical forgetfulness is that dementia reduces someone’s ability to perform daily activities and care for themselves.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the following table represents potential warning signs of dementia vs. normal age-related forgetfulness. 

Typical age-related changesSymptoms of dementia 
occasionally needing help completing familiar tasks, such as using the TV remotedifficulty completing daily tasks, such as driving or caring for yourself
making an odd decision once in a whilefrequent poor judgment and decision making
missing a monthly payment on occasionan inability to manage a budget
temporarily forgetting which day it is or the datelosing track of the date or season
occasionally forgetting or stumbling over a worddifficulty holding a conversation, repeating yourself frequently, or consistently forgetting vocabulary

occasionally misplacing things and needing to retrace your steps to find them

misplacing things and being unable to retrace your steps

If you or a loved one is experiencing any symptoms of dementia, it is important to discuss them with a doctor. Early detection and treatment is critical to reducing the risk of any potential complications. 

What are other causes of forgetfulness?

Older man writing in notebook and looking out window pensively
Milles Studio/Stocksy United

Forgetfulness can sometimes be a symptom of an underlying medical condition. In most cases, treating the root cause will relieve symptoms of forgetfulness or other memory problems.

The NIA lists the following possible causes of forgetfulness:

  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • medication side effects
  • certain disorders of the liver, kidney, or thyroid
  • certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies, such as a lack of vitamin B12
  • blood clots or infections that affect the brain

Possible serious causes of forgetfulness

Memory-related symptoms can also indicate a more serious condition that requires immediate or, in some cases, emergency treatment. Possible serious causes of forgetfulness include:

  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI): A mild TBI or concussion can cause temporary problems with memory — both short and long term — as well as slowed thinking, a sense of fogginess, and difficulty concentrating.
  • Stroke: Someone who shows sudden confusion — along with symptoms such as facial drooping, a loss of balance, muscle weakness, vision changes, or difficulty speaking — may be having a stroke. Call 911 for symptoms of this life threatening emergency.
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA): Symptoms of a TIA are similar to those of a stroke, but they pass after a few minutes. Even though the symptoms appear to go away, however, a TIA is a serious condition that requires prompt medical attention.
  • Brain tumor: One common symptom of a brain tumor, which may or may not be cancerous, is memory loss. Other symptoms include headaches, disorientation, changes in personality, and seizures.
  • Neurological conditions: Conditions that affect brain and nerve function can cause memory loss. These include Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and infections that cause encephalitis, or swelling in the brain.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if someone has acute or sudden forgetfulness after a head injury or when accompanied by sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, a severe headache, difficulty speaking, or facial drooping.

When should you contact a doctor for forgetfulness?

It is normal for your memory to gradually change as you age. However, in some cases, memory loss and forgetfulness are indicators of a more serious problem. 

The NIA advises that you contact a doctor if you are experiencing one or more of the following: 

  • having memory loss that disrupts your daily life
  • asking the same questions or repeating yourself frequently
  • getting lost in familiar places
  • having difficulty following directions or recipes
  • having confusion with time, places, and people
  • having difficulty taking care of yourself, such as not bathing, eating poorly, or behaving unsafely

Questions for diagnosing the cause of forgetfulness

To diagnose your condition, your doctor will ask you several questions related to your forgetfulness. Questions could include:

  • When did you first notice your forgetfulness?
  • How many alcoholic drinks do you consume daily?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Do you have a family history of dementia?
  • Are you having any difficulty with normal daily tasks, such as managing your calendar?

If you are experiencing forgetfulness, it may be helpful to bring a family member to your appointment to help answer questions. 

Tests doctors use to diagnose forgetfulness

Your doctor will evaluate your medical history and perform a physical evaluation. They may use various assessments and tests to diagnose the underlying cause of your forgetfulness, including:  

  • a neurological exam, wherein the doctor will evaluate you for other brain conditions that may be causing your forgetfulness, such as brain tumors, Parkinson’s disease, or a stroke 
  • mental cognitive status tests, which are used to evaluate memory, judgment, and problem solving abilities
  • depression screening, as depression can also cause forgetfulness and memory loss
  • laboratory tests, which may include blood and urine tests to rule out infections 
  • brain imaging, such as a CT, MRI, or PET scan to look at the structure and functioning of the brain  

The rate at which forgetfulness progresses will depend on the underlying cause. In some cases, it can progress very quickly. Early diagnosis is important to help get the treatment and care you may need and help you make any necessary preparations, such as future financial and legal needs. 

Summary

Forgetfulness and memory loss are common concerns for aging adults. In many cases, forgetfulness is a normal sign of aging. However, it may also be a symptom of a more serious condition that requires additional medical evaluation. 

If you have any concerns about the progression of your forgetfulness, talk with your doctor as soon as possible. They will help determine whether or not your forgetfulness is normal and decide on the best course of action.

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Medical Reviewer: Susan W. Lee, DO
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 28
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