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Is It Really Alzheimer’s or Age-Related Forgetfulness?

Making notes

Ever seen a story about Alzheimer’s and wondered if your aging parent might have it?

We’ve all been there!  And it certainly doesn’t help that the biggest risk of getting Alzheimer’s is age!  Still, it’s easy to worry unnecessarily.

The best thing to do before you let panic set in is to familiarize yourself with the ways in which Alzheimer’s is different from normal age-related forgetfulness.

Get The Facts

In the last ten years I’ve attended my fair share of trainings about Alzheimer’s.  Almost invariably, the very first fact that’s reviewed is that forgetting your keys now and again does not mean that you or someone you love has Alzheimer’s. In fact, forgetting your keys is quite normal when you’re life is hectic and you never know if you’re coming or going because of all the things you have to manage on your very full-plate.

But a pattern of forgetfulness that accompanies other symptoms that aren’t characteristic of you or of your aging parent, do deserve attention.  Before I say anymore, my best advice is to click on the Alzheimer’s Association link to read a review of the symptoms that are reasons for concern (and those that aren’t).

Still concerned that your aging parent’s forgetfulness isn’t normal?

Then you should encourage him/her to make an appointment with the doctor.  This will begin the process of ruling out the various causes of memory loss, many which are treatable and reversible.  There’s no better way to be sure.

I also highly recommend the video below by Teepa Snow. It’s a fantastic illustration of what normal age-related forgetfulness looks like and what it doesn’t.

If you’ve never heard of Teepa Snow, then I am delighted to introduce you.  Speaking of the Alzheimer’s Association, Teepa spent 20+ years as the Education Director and Lead Trainer at the Eastern North Carolina Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.  After you watch the video I think you’ll agree that she’s one of a kind!

I should warn you that the sound quality isn’t great and the camera wobbles a bit, but this one is definitely worth a look! (Video time: 7:46)

For those of you who may be unable to watch the video, I’ll summarize it here.

There is a HUGE difference between Alzheimer’s and normal age-related forgetfulness!


Understanding what our working memory is

When we want to do something like make a pot of coffee, that thought goes into our working memory.  The working memory is the part of the brain that allows us to stay focused on a task, to organize and to plan.  However, the bad news, as Teepa explains, is that our working memory is very small and can only hold about 5-8 chunks of information at any one time.

An example of age-related forgetfulness from Teepa’s video:


Jenny wants to make coffee and that thought goes into her working memory. She leaves the chair where she was reading in the living room and heads to the kitchen.  On her way into the kitchen, the phone rings and Jenny’s friend invites her to go to the mall later that afternoon.

Jenny talks with her friend about where they’ll meet, what they’ll eat, who they will invite to come along, etc.  By the time Jenny hangs up the phone, she’s forgotten all about the coffee she wanted to make.  She looks around the kitchen, but can’t remember so she heads back to her chair in the living room. Once she sits down in the chair and starts to read again, the memory returns – coffee!

This is normal and not dementia.  Teepa explains that as we get older we require more cues to remember things.  So in the example, Jenny actually needed to go back to what she was doing before the call – she needed to go back to her chair – in order to remember her thought to make coffee.  When she gets there and sits down, the memory returns.  Sitting in the chair was the cue she needed.

Example of Alzheimer’s from Teepa’s video:


As in the first example, Jenny heads to the kitchen to make the coffee and is interrupted by the phone call.  However, when she hangs up the phone not only does she not remember the coffee, her attention gets diverted and she begins to do illogical things.

For example, she sees a bottle of water and a glass on the counter top and feels she’s found the proof she’s been looking for that people have been sneaking up through the basement and eating her food.  She decides to put the glass in the freezer so her son will see it when he goes to get some ice.  While this behavior would seem illogical to you or me, it makes sense to Jenny and she spends much of her day doing things like this.

Later on Jenny’s friend calls because she is late to meet her at the mall. Jenny doesn’t have any recollection of the call at all.  Despite her friend’s efforts to remind her of what they discussed, Jenny can’t remember and becomes agitated at the friend.

The lack of recall and illogical behavior described above is not normal and most likely a symptom of dementia.


That’s a lot of information to digest! If you have questions, please contact me and ask them.  If someone you love has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, or you’d like to read additional articles on the topic, I’d suggest heading over to the Alzheimer’s page.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Captain Mohinder Singh March 7, 2012, 3:29 AM

    Not only the word spoken by some one else is forgotten but I forget my own utterance ,spoken half a minute back.

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