Forgetfulness vs. Dementia: What’s the Difference?

putting puzzle togerther
Sara Hinson

Sara Hinson

Most older adults have had a “senior moment” or two. Perhaps we have missed an important appointment or forgotten why we have walked into a room. Are these signs of normal aging? Or do they point to more serious cognitive decline, such as dementia? It can be difficult to tell the difference. 

 

For most people, forgetfulness is a result of normal changes in the brain. Though subtle, the brain literally begins to shrink in middle age, especially in areas responsible for memory, such as the hippocampus, housed in the mid-brain region. In addition, the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain, begins to thin with age, especially in the frontal lobe, which is used for high-level information processing. The number of synapses, or processes, between brain cells also drops with age, affecting learning and memory. Besides the physiological causes, many other factors affect memory loss, including some medications, stress, sleep deprivation, depression—even poor nutrition.

 

While memory loss is a symptom of dementia, the condition is much more complex than occasional forgetfulness. Rather, dementia is a blanket term used to describe a decline not just in memory, but also in the ability to handle daily tasks and communicate with others. Similarly, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are not the same thing. Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects the high-level functioning of the brain, and one symptom of Alzheimer’s is dementia.

 

The main difference between forgetfulness and true dementia is the ability to recall information with cues or reminders. For example, you may forget which day of the week it is, but it comes back to you after looking at a calendar. Or, you may have forgotten the name of your high school sweetheart, but later remember after looking through an old yearbook. Or, you lose your car keys but find them when searching the usual spots. 

 

With dementia, cognitive decline goes beyond simple forgetfulness. It affects a person’s ability to perform tasks, problem solve, and use and understand language. For example, a person with dementia may not only forget the day of the week, but also the month and year. Or, they may forget not only the name of their high school sweetheart, but the fact that they attended high school at all. And instead of just losing their car keys, they may have forgotten how to drive entirely.

 

Slowing Age-Related Forgetfulness and Preventing Dementia 

 

It’s common for aging adults to become concerned when they realize their memory is going downhill. But that doesn’t mean we need to ring the alarm bell. Most forgetfulness is normal and can be slowed by behavioral changes and self-care. Some tips include the following:

 

  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Play brain games like crossword puzzles 
  • Engage in daily exercise, especially aerobic exercise
  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Address health issues such as diabetes and high blood pressure


Cumberland Village takes the health of its residents seriously—both body and mind. Daily exercise programs, social activities, and chef-prepared meals can all help you keep your body healthy and your mind sharp.

The Hills