How To Distinguish Between Forgetfulness & Dementia


You’re having a holiday dinner, and your friends and family are gathering around a feast of homemade foods. You haven’t seen your grandma in several months, but when you start talking to her, you are surprised by how confused and forgetful she seems. Is everything ok? Is she simply forgetful? Or is this the beginning of dementia? This scenario is one that many are facing this holiday season. An elderly loved one seems forgetful. Maybe it has been a few months since you have seen them, and the change is noticeable. Maybe it has been gradually getting worse, but the holiday season, full of family gatherings and events, makes it more obvious. Either way, you and your elderly loved one should know the signs of forgetfulness vs. dementia.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a broad category for all sorts of cognitive function decline. Alzheimer’s fits in this category, along with dementia caused by all sorts of factors. At its core, dementia is the abnormal loss of brain function. Usually memory, thinking, and learning are the first to be affected. Daily life becomes more difficult because of this loss. Dementia progresses more rapidly than normal ageing. Yet, even within each dementia diagnosis, there is great variation in how rapidly symptoms progress. Dementia often also includes changes to behavior, including the following: paranoid delusions, difficulty participating in conversations, and strong negative emotions.

Dementia is caused by damage to brain cells and nerve connections, so that communication between brain cells becomes difficult or impossible. Some dementias are caused by harm to the brain from concentrations of certain proteins near the learning and memory center of the brain.  Others result from damaged blood cells in the brain. All dementia risk increases with age, but family history, gender, and race/ethnicity also can cause your risk factor to increase.

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What is forgetfulness?

Everyone has misplaced their keys or failed to recall someone’s name. These types of lapses become more common with age. As we get older, learning new things may become more difficult, and slips, like forgetting the day of the week or not being able to come up with a word in the moment, may become more common. So, if your grandma can’t think of what nutmeg is called when teaching you the family recipe, but later corrects herself, that may just be a normal part of growing older.

Key Differences Between Forgetfulness and Dementia

Telling the difference between forgetfulness and dementia is not necessarily straightforward, especially if dementia is in the early stages. Here are some ways to tell if it’s forgetfulness vs. dementia.

Forgetfulness Dementia
Forgetting to pay a bill More consistently missing payments
Not being able to remember a word or name, but recalling it later Forgetting information right after being told; repeating questions after being told the answer
Having some difficulty with planning or thinking things through Being confused by planning; unable to think things through
Trouble concentrating on new tasks or multiple tasks at once Difficulty focusing on one task; unable to learn a new task
Getting lost in a new place Confused and lost in familiar places
Struggling to follow conversation when many people are talking at once; conversation is more difficult Unable to follow conversation even without distractions; Being confused and struggling to participate in conversation at all

Much of this information was taken from a series of helpful charts found on the Alzheimer’s Society website comparing the symptoms of dementia with normal forgetfulness.

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Determining If Your Loved One Has Dementia v. Forgetfulness

This holiday season, you may notice a change in your elderly loved ones. Struggling to follow big group conversations with many people talking at once, trying to remember which grandkid is which because of summer growth spurts, and misplacing reading glasses at a relative’s house are all normal challenges to an ageing brain. You may not need to raise the alarm over these occurrences. If your loved one is struggling to navigate a familiar home, seems confused by putting together the traditional gingerbread house, or accidentally puts house keys in the bathroom cabinet, you may need to consider having a conversation about testing and evaluation for dementia.

It may be difficult to evaluate from limited engagement over the holiday season. This may just be a time to take note and commit to checking in more frequently to see if these symptoms are regular or just an off day. You may consider talking with other loved ones to see if similar symptoms have been noted. In the end, a medical professional will need to make an official diagnosis. Brain scans, memory tests, and other tools will give the best indication of your loved one’s condition. Early detection is helpful for managing symptoms and improving quality of life in the long run.

While a certain increase in absentmindedness is normal as your loved ones age, this holiday season you can tell if that odd remark or confused behavior is forgetfulness vs. dementia.

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Priscilla Lundquist

InnoVision Health Media reports on health content that is supported by our editorial advisory board and content published in our group of peer reviewed medical journals.

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