Dementia or forgetfulness: How to tell the difference

Have you ever run upstairs to get something and forget why you were there? Or, maybe you can’t remember what you had for dinner last night? We all forget things from time to time, and it is a normal part of life. It is why we keep to-do lists and reminders. As people age, instances of forgetfulness become more frequent, but this is all a normal part of the aging process. So, how can we tell the difference between normal absent-mindedness and warning signs of dementia?

Normal, Age-related forgetfulness

As we age, our natural stimulators of brain cell repair and growth start to decline, making it more difficult to remember certain things, like what you had for dinner last night or the name of your high school Math teacher. These things will come to us, eventually. Typical signs of normal age-related forgetfulness become noticeable in middle age and may include:

  • Forgetting where your keys, purse, glasses, and other objects have been left
  • Not recalling details of conversations, although you do remember the conversation taking place
  • ‘”Tip of the tongue” phenomena, where words are hard to recall
  • Missing appointments or becoming confused about when they were supposed to take place

This normal age-related forgetfulness can be frustrating, but should not be alarming or particularly disruptive to day-to-day life.

Significant memory loss

More serious memory loss can be a sign of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is not a form of dementia, although some people who have MCI will develop dementia. Forgetting things that cause problems with lifestyle should not be ignored. Typical symptoms can include:

  • Not caring for oneself properly; not showering, changing clothing, or eating
  • Struggling to remember things day-to-day
  • Losing or misplacing things frequently
  • Not being able to recall the names of people, both those you have just met and those you have known for some time
  • Relying on notes, planners, and diaries to get through the day
  • Unable to manage medications
  • Difficulty using the telephone
  • Inability to find your way home
  • Unable to manage finances

If these symptoms are causing problems with everyday activities, they could be a sign of MCI. The good news is in noticing signs quickly can mean help is sought at an early stage, allowing more time to prepare if it does develop into dementia.


Dementia is an “umbrella” term for a group of symptoms that occur when the brain is damaged by disease. Alzheimer’s is only one type of dementia that causes a significant decline in a person’s mental abilities or cognitive function. The symptoms are similar to significant memory loss, only more severe. These problems will begin to impact everyday life, causing problems and potentially putting the sufferer at risk. Typically, people at this stage will exhibit: 

  • Significant problems in remembering things that happened in the recent past
  • Becoming unable to follow plots of films or conversations
  • Unable to recall the names of everyday objects
  • Repeating what they’ve already said, or losing the thread of what they wanted to say
  • Getting lost in familiar places, or feeling disorientated regularly
  • Changes in personality, mood, or attitude
  • Poor judgment when dealing with money
  • Change in personality or assessing risks

None of these symptoms alone are definitive symptoms of dementia and should be investigated further by a doctor. An early dementia diagnosis makes it easier to get proper treatment and support and can help family members to understand why these changes are taking place. According to the World Health Organization, more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year.

Age-related memory loss is not the same as dementia, and while we all have ‘senior moments’ from time to time, more serious cognitive impairment should not be overlooked. Dementia will generally get worse over time, so if things are going downhill rapidly, do seek professional attention to ensure you’re getting the right support for your loved one.

At The Pines Senior Living’s secure Evergreen Memory Care facility, we care for individuals living with dementia. 

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