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Understanding Memory Lapses: What's Normal for Seniors and What Signals Dementia


Memory lapses can be scary, whether they are your own or something you see in a loved one. In many cases, the cause is simply age-related forgetfulness. Forgetting where the keys are or taking a few seconds longer to recall a name is not necessarily cause for alarm. However, it is good to understand the different types of memory issues; the earlier that possible dementia is detected, the better.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

A condition called mild cognitive impairment falls between normal forgetfulness and dementia. In quite a few situations, it is a precursor to more severe dementia issues. However, plenty of people with MCI stay at that in-between level of forgetfulness, and life activities such as daily self-care are very possible.

MCI symptoms include having problems thinking of appropriate words, frequently losing objects and forgetting to attend key events such as a family holiday party or doctor’s appointment. Doctors who diagnose MCI keep an eye on the patient to see if memory worsens; there are no FDA-approved medications for this condition.

Normal Forgetfulness

Normal forgetfulness is more common in older people, but people of all ages experience it. It includes misattribution; you get a memory mostly right but get a person, place or time wrong. Blocking is also common. In this scenario, you know an answer is right there, like on the tip of your tongue, but it just won’t come. With absentmindedness, you forget where you put your car keys because you were not paying attention. Ditto with overlooking a minor appointment.


The signs of dementia can be really troubling. For example, “misplacing” may mean putting a curling iron in the fridge or in another strange location. Personality changes may include heightened fear and suspicion, and people with dementia can become lost when they are only a minute or two from home.

Cooking might become dangerous, as one indicator of dementia is forgetting that a meal has been made or is being made. Dementia also affects job performance; someone with normal age-related forgetfulness might not recall a co-worker’s name or a small assignment, but someone with dementia might forget key elements of doing the job. Leaving work could mean getting trapped in the elevators because you do not know which floor to get off on or even how to operate the elevator.

If you suspect dementia in yourself or in a loved one, a doctor’s consultation is important. This holds true even if your loved one is already in a nursing care community, as not all are prepared to deal with people who have dementia. If dementia is confirmed, check how well-equipped the community is for such cases or keep the following essential factors in mind when searching for a new home. Look for a person-centered approach, which recognizes the potential and dignity of people with dementia. Safety is another must; facilities should have measures in place for emergency preparedness and to prevent wandering. A third element is staff who are well-versed in dementia care.