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Understanding Memory Lapses: What’s Normal and What Signals Dementia?

Memory is a crucial part of our daily lives, allowing us to retain information, recall past experiences, and make decisions.  It’s normal to experience occasional memory loss, but as we age, we might become more concerned about whether these lapses are a sign of something more serious, like dementia.  In this article, we will explore the differences between normal memory lapses and those that may signal the onset of dementia.  Understanding these distinctions can help us proactively seek medical attention and support when needed.

Normal Memory Lapses

Before jumping to conclusions and becoming worrisome, it’s essential to recognize that experiencing occasional memory lapses is a natural part of being human.  Common types of normal forgetfulness may include sharing a story or memory and recalling most of it accurately but getting the person, place, or time wrong.  Another common type of forgetfulness is when you have something on the tip of your tongue that just won’t come to you.  Additionally, you might forget where you put your car keys, wallet, or purse.  These are all normal and attributed to age-related forgetfulness.  These lapses are usually harmless and can occur for various reasons, such as:

  1. Distraction: Being preoccupied or distracted by external stimuli can lead to momentary memory lapses.
  2. Fatigue and Stress: Lack of Sleep, excessive worry or stress, or emotional turmoil can impact memory function temporarily.
  3. Aging: As we age, the brain undergoes subtle changes, resulting in slightly slower information processing and memory recall.  However, these changes don’t necessarily indicate dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
  4. Multitasking: Trying to juggle multiple tasks or pieces of information simultaneously can sometimes lead to minor memory lapses.
  5. Lack of Focus: Not paying enough attention to the information we want to remember can lead to forgetfulness.

Normal memory lapses generally do not interfere significantly with daily life and can often be remedied through adequate rest and stress management.

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) lies between normal forgetfulness and dementia.  Symptoms include having trouble using correct words often, frequently losing or misplacing objects, and forgetting to attend gatherings, events, or appointments.  Many doctors will monitor individuals diagnosed with MCI to see if their symptoms worsen.

Recognizing Potential Dementia Warning Signs

While occasional memory lapses are normal, persistent, and progressive, worsening memory problems may indicate underlying health issues, including dementia.  Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of cognitive impairments characterized by memory loss, difficulty in problem-solving, confusion, and changes in behavior.  Some key warning signs of dementia include:

  1. Forgetfulness Impairing Daily Activities: Difficulty completing routine tasks, such as dressing or cooking, due to memory loss.
  2. Repetitive Behavior: Repeatedly asking the same questions or telling the same stories without remembering having done so.
  3. Disorientation: Getting lost in familiar places or not recognizing familiar faces or objects.
  4. Decline in Judgement: Exhibiting poor decision-making abilities and falling for scams or unsafe situations.
  5. Mood and Personality Changes: Sudden shifts in mood, becoming confused, anxious, fearful, or increased suspiciousness or paranoia in everyday activities.
  6. Difficulty Communicating: Struggling to find the right words or losing the train of thought during conversations.

It is crucial to note that experiencing one or two symptoms does not necessarily mean someone has dementia.  However, seeking professional medical evaluation is essential if these signs are frequent, persistent, and significantly interfere with daily life.


If you or your loved one may be demonstrating signs of dementia, scheduling an appointment with your doctor is most important.  Early diagnosis and intervention can help manage symptoms, slow the progression of some conditions, and provide the necessary support and resources to cope with memory-related challenges.

By seeking early medical interventions and adopting a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, mental stimulation, and a balanced diet, we can mitigate the impact of memory-related issues and enjoy a fulfilling life.  Remember, our brain is a remarkable organ, and caring for it should be a top priority throughout our lives.

Even if your loved one is already in an independent or assisted living facility, understand that not all facilities and staff are trained or educated on caring for individuals with dementia.  Suppose a dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis is confirmed. In that case, it’s essential to talk with the facility and determine how well-equipped they are for caring for your loved one with dementia.  It’s important to look for facilities specializing in memory care and have a person-centered approach that focuses on preserving the dignity of individuals with dementia and being active participants in their care.  Safety is also paramount, and it’s best if your loved one lives in a facility with adequate staff that are not temporary agency staff.  Find out beforehand what the facility’s capabilities are in progressive care needs and what safety measures are in place for sundowning symptoms, and prevent wandering, especially outside of the building.  This will help give you peace of mind knowing that your loved one is well cared for and safe.

Since 2002, Heartwood Homes Senior Living is the only assisted living facility that exclusively specializes in memory care in the Fox Valley and is in Appleton, WI.