Fretting About Forgetting: When Forgetting is OK and When to Get It Checked

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. March 27, 2017

Fretting About Forgetting: When Forgetting is OK and When to Get It Checked

It’s the third time that I have returned to my car in preparation for a short trip to town. First I forgot my keys, then I forgot my apple, then I forgot my water. Oh, I forgot, I also forgot whether I shut off the TV.

Should I be concerned? Would you be concerned?

The National Institute on Aging has an in-depth website on Health & Aging with a section called: Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help. The site tells us that “Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging.” It goes on to describe causes of memory loss and more serious memory problems: Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

“Normal” Memory Problems

The Harvard Health Publication article called Forgetfulness — 7 Types of Normal Memory Problems reports that memory loss or memory distortion can occur at any age … “but — unless they are extreme and persistent — they are not considered indicators of Alzheimer's or other memory-impairing illnesses.”

The Seven Normal Memory Problems are

  1. Transience: the tendency to forget facts or events over time.
  2. Absentmindedness: occurs when you don't pay close enough attention.
  3. Blocking: the temporary inability to retrieve a memory.
  4. Misattribution: occurs when you remember something accurately in part, but misattribute some detail or when you believe a thought you had was totally original when, in fact, it came from something you had previously read or heard but had forgotten about.
  5. Suggestibility: the vulnerability of your memory to the power of suggestion — the suggestion fools your mind into thinking it's a real memory.
  6. Bias: a flawed snapshot of reality.
  7. Persistence: persistently recalling memories that people wish they could forget, but can't.

On a personal note – forgetting my keys, apple and water is probably a form of “absentmindedness.”

Normal Age-related Forgetfulness presents a very informative review of “Age-Related Memory Loss.” Like the Harvard Health Publication report, this review tells us that the following types of memory lapses are normal among older adults and generally are not considered warning signs of dementia:

  • Occasionally forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys.
  • Forgetting names of acquaintances or blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name.
  • Occasionally forgetting an appointment or walking into a room and forgetting why you entered.
  • Becoming easily distracted or having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation.
  • Not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”

Per the Help Guide review, “The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former isn’t disabling. The memory lapses have little impact on your daily performance and ability to do what you want to do. Dementia, on the other hand, is marked by a persistent, disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment, and abstract thinking.”

When to Begin Fretting About Forgetting

The National Institute of Health’s Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center cites the following as “serious memory problems”

  • asking the same questions over and over again
  • getting lost in places you know well
  • not being able to follow directions
  • becoming more confused about time, people, and places
  • not taking care of yourself—eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe

If you or a loved one are concerned about memory lapses, the Help Guide provides the MCI / Alzheimer’s Questionnaire, a 21-question test designed to measure mild cognitive impairment and your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The questions are intended to be answered by a spouse, close friend, or other loved one. While the Alzheimer’s Questionnaire is considered quite accurate, it should not be used as a definitive guide to diagnosing mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease, but as a tool to test whether your loved one needs further assessment.

If the results on your the MCI / Alzheimer’s Questionnaire are a cause for concern or if your memory lapses become frequent enough or sufficiently noticeable to concern you or a family member, make an appointment with your primary physician as soon as possible.

What to Do to Help Improve Memory

Per all three sources cited in this article and others, brain health and functioning can be maintained and even improved. Some suggestions to keep your brain in peak condition include

  1. Walk whenever possible
  2. Get plenty of sleep and rest
  3. Eat well.
  4. Learn about omega-3 fats and their role in brain health
  5. Get plenty of key “brain vitamins,” including A, B, C, D and E
  6. Learn something new, such as a new skill
  7. Engage in brain games such as puzzles
  8. Use memory enhancement tools such as big calendars, to-do lists, and notes to yourself
  9. Stay social by prioritizing face-to-face connections
  10. Volunteer in your community, at a school, or at your place of worship
  11. Spend time with friends and family
  12. Avoid smoking
  13. Don’t drink a lot of alcohol
  14. Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time
  15. Continue to learn about staying cognitively healthy

Forgetting and Falls

Memory loss impacts a variety of daily living activities, including mobility. Forgetting the number of steps on your stairs can cause you to stumble. Failure to duck your head under lower ceiling objects can knock you down or out. And forgetting to raise your foot above thresholds at entry doors or between rooms can result in an unexpected trip. Making your home safer with grab bars and other devices may not prevent all falls but may help you catch yourself in the unfortunate event that you do.

Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.
Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.


Dr. Bruce Montgomery is a licensed building contractor in Michigan and Florida. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist as designated by the National Association of Home Builders. He has also achieved an Executive Certificate in Home Modification from the University of Southern California. He has a wide ranging educational background, including a Master of Science degree in Entomology, with a Master of Science degree in Forestry and a Ph.D. in educational administration.

Also in Blog

Toilets: Facts and Safety Tips
Toilets: Facts and Safety Tips

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. October 30, 2017 0 Comments

Read More

Paying for Accessibility Remodeling
Paying for Accessibility Remodeling

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. August 21, 2017 0 Comments

Read More

Summer Activities For Seniors
Summer Activities For Seniors

by Allie Brito July 06, 2017 0 Comments

Read More