Is it Alzheimer’s, or just a memory slip?


Former Editor, Harvard Health

A few months ago, I hung up the phone after a conversation with my 85-year-old father wondering, “Should I be worried about Alzheimer’s?” That’s because I noticed my dad struggling to express himself, faltering over the right words, and forgetting names. We live 1,500 miles apart, so I don’t get to see how he is doing day-to-day.

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness—misplaced keys, a forgotten errand, the name of that movie you want to recommend but can’t get off the tip of your tongue. A certain amount of forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging. Researchers speculate that it may be linked to changes in the brain that begin around age 50, such as a decline in certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters or a gradual loss of receptors on brain cells.

How do you know whether to attribute some episodes of forgetfulness to normal age-related changes or something more serious? As the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease reveals, by noting some of the characteristics of these forgetful moments, you may be able to get a clearer sense of normal versus worrisome forgetfulness. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Is my loved one worried about the memory loss? When Alzheimer’s or other dementia occurs, the person affected is often much less concerned about memory loss than his or her family members. The reverse is true for normal age-related memory problems.

Is he or she getting lost in familiar territory? If your loved one doesn’t get lost in familiar surroundings, but does sometimes pause momentarily to remember the way, normal aging is likely. But getting lost in his or her own neighborhood while walking or driving, and taking hours to return, should raise a concern about Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

Are word-finding problems common? Occasional trouble finding the right word probably isn’t worth worrying over, but frequent word-finding pauses and substitutions —for example, calling the telephone “the ringer” or “that thing I use to call you”—is typical of Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

Is your loved one losing the ability to socialize, or interest in it? While it isn’t uncommon for an older adult to be unwilling to operate new devices or to fumble a bit with a cell phone or computer, it’s a warning sign if the person has trouble operating common appliances like the dishwasher properly or is unable to learn to operate even simple new devices. Also, it’s worth noting if he or she has lost interest in social activities or if his or her social skills seem to be declining.

The task of figuring out “is it Alzheimer’s?” is easier for me, since my father and 92-year-old stepmother have other family living nearby, and I often check in with them. If that wasn’t an option, I would talk to my dad’s doctor. That’s probably worth considering if you have unresolved questions or worries about a loved one’s memory.

A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease is available from Harvard Health Publishing.

Related Information: A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease


  1. Caleb Zuniga

    A great post without doubt. The information shared is of top quality which has to get appreciated at all levels. Well done keep up the good work.

  2. Lillian

    Has any body heard of this? Coconut oil for Alzheimer’s? I think there is nothing to lose by trying it. Wished I have heard before my mom died of Altz. Harvard, Any studies yet on this?
    [URL removed by moderator]


    taking medications in the wrong doses .. this is most relevent point

  4. Sonia

    Based on our family experience with my mom, and journal articles that I’ve read in the past few years, I’d add the following:
    1) falls. There is some evidence that falls precede an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. My mom had falls for 2-3 years prior to her diagnosis that we attributed to her being clumsy, getting older and losing her balance, etc. Two of the many falls resulted in bone fractures.
    2) forgetting things that the person should know. In our case, my mom was an avid and experienced cook and when the turkey was undercooked one year, the tortillas had too much baking powder and even the eggs were not made correctly, we noticed. These occurred before her diagnosis.
    3) spending money differently (more conservative/more loosely). My mom had always been very conservative in her money management and now was buying things she didn’t need (or normally like) in duplicates. She was taken advantage of by a so-called “charity” as a result. Occasionally, she also thought that she’d lent us money and that we owed her, when it never happened.
    4) taking medications in the wrong doses. My aunt was taking too little of her diabetes medication and ended up in the hospital. When she did it again, she was referred to a neurologist who did a thorough work-up and diagnosed her with dementia, most likely Alzheimer’s.

Commenting has been closed for this post.