In this issue of HEALTHbeat:
  • Is it forgetfulness or dementia?

Harvard Health Publications -- Harvard Medical School HEALTHbeat
May 19, 2009

Is it forgetfulness or dementia?

Regardless of age, everyone experiences occasional episodes of forgetfulness. Many people fear that a growing number of such lapses are a sure sign of Alzheimer’s, but there are important differences between simple forgetfulness and dementia. A third state, called mild cognitive impairment, falls in between normal memory function and dementia. People with mild cognitive impairment are at increased risk of developing dementia.

Normal forgetfulness

Normal forgetfulness is neither progressive nor disabling. Such memory problems are likely to surface when you’re under stress, fatigued, ill, distracted, or overloaded. Typically, you remember the forgotten information later. Like most people, you probably rely on written reminders and other memory-jogging techniques to overcome this kind of forgetfulness.

A certain increase in forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging and is perhaps a result of changes in the brain that begin around age 50, such as a gradual loss of receptors on brain cells and a decline in certain neurotransmitters. Researchers disagree over how much deterioration is normal.

It’s important to note that memory loss isn’t inevitable, though. There are many things you can do to preserve or sharpen your memory, including learning memory-enhancing techniques, reducing stress, and improving your organizational techniques (writing down appointments or having a designated spot for belongings such as keys and eyeglasses). It’s also important to regularly challenge your mind with activities such as reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing chess, or taking classes. Experts believe that these kinds of activities help build and maintain synapses, the small gaps between neurons that enable them to communicate with one another.

Physicians often use the following criteria to help differentiate between normal aging and dementia.

Normal aging


Preserved independence in daily activities

Critical dependence on others for key daily living activities

The person complains of memory loss but can provide considerable detail regarding incidents of forgetfulness

The person complains of memory problems only if specifically asked; cannot recall instances where memory loss was noticeable

The individual is more concerned about alleged forgetfulness than close family members are

Close family members are much more concerned about incidents of memory loss than the individual

Recent memory for important events, affairs, and conversations is not impaired

Recent memory for events and ability to converse are both noticeably impaired

Occasional word-finding difficulties

Frequent word-finding pauses and substitutions

Person does not get lost in familiar territory; may have to pause momentarily to remember way

Person gets lost in familiar territory while walking or driving; may take hours to return home

Individual operates common appliances even if unwilling to learn how to operate new devices

Person cannot operate common appliances; unable to learn to operate even simple new appliances

No decline in interpersonal social skills

Loss of interest in social activities; socially inappropriate behaviors

Normal performance on mental status examinations, relative to the individual’s education and culture

Below-normal performance on mental status examinations in ways not accounted for by educational or cultural factors

Source: Diagnosis, Management and Treatment of Dementia: A Practical Guide for Primary Care Physicians (American Medical Association).

Mild cognitive impairment

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is considered a transitional state between normal forgetfulness and dementia. At least one cognitive (thinking) domain — usually memory — is below normal or in decline.

A person who has MCI is able to carry on daily activities without difficulty, but a particular subset of cognitive skills may be diminished. In particular, someone with MCI may show some of the following signs:

  • increasing difficulty with memory or, in some cases, subtle problems in other cognitive domains, such as language, attention, spatial skills, and problem solving
  • confirmation of impairment on neuropsychological tests, often manifesting as difficulty with learning and delayed recall of information compared with others of the same age and education level; in some cases, memory is normal but is less reliable than it used to be.


With dementia, memory loss is severe enough to interfere with someone’s ability to function socially and at work. The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are many other types, including frontotemporal lobar degeneration, dementia with Lewy bodies, and vascular dementia (which is caused by multiple strokes that interrupt blood flow to the brain). These are some signs of dementia:

  • Intellectual function has declined from a previous level. This change in mental ability differentiates dementia from mental retardation.
  • The person is aware and alert, which differentiates dementia from delirium.
  • More than one type of thinking is affected. In addition to memory, at least one of the following also is impaired: personality, abstract thinking, judgment, use of language, the ability to perform complex physical tasks, or the ability to recognize objects or people. Known as global cognitive impairment, this characteristic distinguishes dementia not only from mere forgetfulness but also from such conditions as amnesia (memory loss only) and speech deficits (caused by stroke, for example).
  • What is Alzheimer’s disease?
  • Recognizing the symptoms
  • How the brain works
  • Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease
  • Possible protective factors
  • Diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease
  • Is it Alzheimer’s or another dementia? 
  • The search for therapies
  • Special Bonus Section: Caregiving: Day-to-day challenges and beyond
  • Anticipating the future
  • Planning ahead: Legal and financial matters
  • Long-term residential care
Reprinted from A Guide to Alzheimer's Disease, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, © 2009 by Harvard University. All rights reserved.

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