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Forgetfulness: What’s normal and what’s not?

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We’ve all done it; forgotten something we think should be impossible to forget, and then started to worry that we have dementia. But remember, getting older comes with all kinds of new aches, pains, sensations, and experiences—including forgetfulness. As long as what you’re experiencing isn’t extreme or persistent, your forgetfulness is not likely an indicator of Alzheimer’s or another memory-impairing illness.1

According to Harvard Medical School2, normal memory problems fall into seven categories:

  1. Transience: forgetting facts or events over time.

  2. Absentmindedness: forgetting because you weren’t paying close enough attention to what you were doing, or forgetting to do something at a prescribed time.

  3. Blocking: the temporary inability to retrieve a memory, like someone’s name.

  4. Misattribution: remembering something, but messing up a key detail like the time or place; or thinking you’ve had an original thought or idea when in fact it came from someone else.

  5. Suggestibility: when information you’ve learned about an experience becomes part of your memory of the incident.

  6. Bias: when your personal biases influence your recollection of a memory.

  7. Persistence: the inability to forget traumatic memories.

It’s important to note that memory problems can also be caused by stress and anxiety, lack of sleep, certain medications (including tranquilizers, antidepressants, and some blood pressure drugs), drinking too much alcohol, underactive thyroid and other health problems, and depression.3

When should you be concerned?

If you or a loved one is experiencing forgetfulness that becomes progressively more persistent and severe, and is beginning to affect everyday function, it could indicate a serious problem. Getting lost in familiar places, frequently forgetting things you’ve been told, repeating stories, and asking repetitive questions are all signs that something more serious might be going on.4 You should talk to your family doctor if you have any concerns about your health and memory function, but particularly if you are noticing issues like this in yourself or a loved one.

Getting a prompt diagnosis is incredibly important because while Alzheimer’s disease isn’t currently curable, there are treatments to manage symptoms, and resources available to help patients and their families cope with the realities of the disease. And if the memory issues you’re having are, in fact, caused by something that can be addressed, such as changing a medication or seeking out therapy for stress or depression, you can put the worry behind you and begin to treat the cause.

It’s easy to jump to the worst possible conclusions, but a visit to your doctor will help ease your mind and ensure that you have the best possible outcome regardless of what the diagnosis happens to be. Visit The Alzheimer’s Association for tips on what to expect when you see your doctor about memory issues, what questions you should ask, and what information you should bring along with you.  For more information on how to assess what’s going on with you or a loved one, and how to start the conversation with someone if you have concerns about their memory or your own, click here.

SOURCES

1,2  https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/forgetfulness-7-types-of-normal-memory-problems

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/7-common-causes-of-forgetfulness-201302225923

https://www.rush.edu/health-wellness/discover-health/worrying-about-memory-loss

417951E CAN/US 05/20

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