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When is memory loss in aging a sign of concern?

Many older adults and their adult children worry about signs of changing memory function. Is mom just becoming more forgetful due to aging, or is it early signs of something more serious, like a form of dementia? This is a common cause for concern and a question worth exploring in more detail. In this article, we’ll explain how to recognize when memory loss in aging may be a sign of concern (i.e. how to tell when it may be beyond normal aging).

Signs of Memory Loss Due to Normal Aging:

There is a big difference between dementia (in any form, including Alzheimer’s disease) and mild forgetfulness. Through the following list, we hope to help you to identify common forgetfulness more clearly.

Here are signs of aging-related forgetfulness:

  • Taking a longer amount of time to learn something new. As we age, learning is naturally a bit more difficult. Taking a bit longer to learn new information or a new piece of technology, for example, is often a very normal sign of aging.

  • Occasionally forgetting to pay a bill. A bill slipping through the cracks here or there is a common sign of forgetfulness and not necessarily a cause for further concern.

  • Forgetting a word or the date in a conversation. Forgetting a word every now and then is a normal sign of aging. It’s also normal to briefly forget what day of the week it is, especially if they are able to later remember.

  • Misplacing items from time to time. It’s very normal to misplace an item (especially something used frequently like glasses or house keys) every once in a while as we age, and on its own is not a sign of something more sinister.

More Concerning Signs of Memory Loss:

The key in all of the “normal forgetfulness” items is that they are seen just on occasion. Memory loss behaviors that become more regular than occasional create a greater cause for concern.

  • Regularly forgetting important tasks like paying bills. It is more concerning if your loved one forgets how to do tasks they’ve done regularly. For example, if remembering to pay bills has started to become a problem (maybe the landlord, utility company, or a creditor has started fining or warning of cutoff due to unpaid bills, for example), this is a greater cause for concern.

  • Losing track of the day, time, or year.

  • Getting lost on well-known paths (like the way to the grocery store, for example).

  • Struggling to hold a conversation. Examples include forgetting or misusing words, making up words, rearranging sentences, and forgetting the names of the people involved in the conversation.

  • Cloudy thoughts or struggling to recall recent memories. Having a bit of trouble remembering the details of a recent experience is normal. Forgetting events, conversations, or experiences entirely is a problem.

  • Behavioral Changes. Behavioral change is a hallmark symptom of dementia. A shift in behavior (such as poor social skills, judgment calls, or outbursts) is a cause for concern. Note: See our article on navigating behavioral changes with dementia for more examples.

Other Potential Causes of Memory Loss:

Most commonly, significant memory loss is a sign of a form of dementia, but it’s important to speak to a doctor if you have concerns. There are other potential causes of memory loss that a doctor can help you to rule out such as:

  • Emotional distress or grief. If your loved one has lost a spouse or suffered a trauma, for example, their memory loss may be due to the emotional overload they’re currently experiencing.

  • Mild Cognitive Impairment. Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is a somewhat intermediate diagnosis that means that they have more memory problems than average, but not severe memory loss. MCI may be a precursor to a form of dementia, but does not always turn into dementia. MCI is not associated with the personality changes that someone with Alzheimer’s, for example, will experience.

  • Medication side effects.

  • Injury (such as a car accident, fall, bump on the head, etc.)

  • Treatment or suffering through an ailment (such as cancer, thyroid problems, an infection, etc.)

Closing Thoughts on Aging and Memory Loss: When to See a Doctor

It’s time to see a doctor when memory lapses have become frequent or severe enough to warrant concern (whether that concern is noticeable to yourself or others). It’s important to remember that only a medical professional can diagnose you or a loved one. Many of the causes of memory loss are potentially treatable so if you’re concerned, it’s worth seeing a physician to discuss.

If you provide regular care to your loved one, we at CRC Orange County are here for you. We invite you to check out our library of information for family caregivers by clicking here for further reading and resources. You are also welcome to give us a call at 800-543-8312 to find out more about how we can support you in your caregiving journey.


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