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6 Signs Your Family Member’s ‘Forgetfulness’ Is Actually Alzheimer’s Disease

Be on the lookout for these signs that may appear to be normal, age-related forgetfulness but are actually a type of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease.

They forget the names of familiar people

Remembering the names of familiar friends could take longer with normal aging. The information, however, is not lost the way it is for people with Alzheimer’s disease, according to Joe Verghese, MBBS, professor of neurology and medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for the Aging Brain. For actor and model Scott Eastwood, watching his grandmother not recognize her family was especially challenging. “Imagine forgetting all the people who love you most in this world, not in one day but slowly, over many years,” says Eastwood, who has partnered with LearnAboutAlz.com and Allergan for World Alzheimer’s Day, September 21. “That was tough, to have to see my mom remind her who we were and who she was when we visited her.” One of the primary differences between forgetfulness and Alzheimer’s disease is that the information doesn’t eventually come back to people with Alzheimer’s.

Smiling senior woman having recreation in park.Mladen Zivkovic/Shutterstock

They get lost in familiar places

Old age, or the normal aging process, has to do with forgetting about things you don’t deal with on a regular basis, like forgetting someone you met at a conference months ago or looking up an address that you visited months prior, says Ghalib Wahidi, MD, medical director of Amada Senior Care. People with Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, usually forget things they shouldn’t, like getting lost on the street where they’ve lived for a significant amount of time. Or they might forget the names of close family members and friends they see regularly. These are not normal signs of aging, according to Dr. Wahidi. Check out the 15 myths about Alzheimer’s disease you should stop believing.

Senior people talkingRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

They have various language problems

Language impairment, such as forgetting a word when speaking or repeating questions, stories, and statements, is one of the primary components of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research published in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging. This includes using the wrong word when speaking, like saying “chair” when referring to a sofa. People with Alzheimer’s sometimes even make up words, according to Paula Lester, MD, a geriatrician and Alzheimer’s expert at NYU Winthrop Hospital, who was named Outstanding Physician of the Year in 2017 by the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation. “In Alzheimer’s, the person cannot remember the word they are looking for and eventually often create words instead,” she says. “In normal aging, it might take longer to think of a word than for a younger person, but individuals eventually remember the word.”

Keys in refrigeratorphotoschmidt/Shutterstock

They misplace items and don’t remember where they are

Occasionally misplacing things is normal, but doing so frequently could be a sign of forgetfulness that is actually Alzheimer’s disease. Leaving things in odd places, in particular, is symptomatic of Alzheimer’s, according to Dr. Verghese. “In Alzheimer’s disease, this occurs more often, and patients leave them in unusual places,” he says, “for example, leaving their keys in the refrigerator.” As with words, if you eventually remember where you put your keys or another object, this is a sign of typical age-related change—not of Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Know the 50 habits that reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s.

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They make mistakes with medications, bill payments, and other typical tasks

Another difference between age-related memory loss and dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is that normal aging doesn’t interfere with your daily ability to carry on, according to neurologist Verna R. Porter, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Program at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “In other words, the memory lapses have little impact on your daily life, or your ability to carry on usual chores, tasks, and routines that comprise our daily lives,” she says. To characterize dementias, however, there must be a persistent decline in two or more intellectual abilities, like memory or language, that significantly disrupt ordinary daily activities, according to Dr. Porter. For example, someone with Alzheimer’s might have trouble managing the mail or even preparing a recipe that was once second nature.

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They have a hard time learning new things

Trouble learning new things or frequent memory loss of new information is an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s when it disrupts daily life, says Christopher Christodoulou, PhD, a clinical and research neuropsychologist at the Stony Brook Center of Excellent for Alzheimer’s Disease. This memory loss means that Alzheimer’s patients will forget things they just learned, which also makes them repeat things over and over, according to a CBS report. Christodoulou encourages anyone who is having trouble remembering new things to inform his or her doctor. Learn the 15 things neurologists do to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.

Elderly patient alone in bed. Alone and stress, missing her grand children. Looking at window. Very senior, old chinese woman.BaanTaksinStudio/Shutterstock

Alzheimer’s has other symptoms besides memory loss—and memory loss is also a symptom of other diseases

There are many reasons for memory loss other than Alzheimer’s disease, and they may be treatable, Dr. Verghese says. It can be hard for individuals to gauge what is forgetfulness versus a form of dementia, says Abraham Brody, PhD, RN, an associate professor at the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing and founder of Aliviado, a resource for home health and hospice teams caring for people with dementia. “There are many causes of forgetting a word or an idea, including medications, poor sleep or nutrition, vitamin deficiencies, or depression that would need to be ruled out and cognitive testing performed,” Brody says. According to Dr. Verghese, many causes of memory loss may be treatable. It is also important to note that Alzheimer’s affects more than your memory and has other symptoms, such as trouble controlling motor skills like walking and swallowing, Slate reports. Next, check out the differences between Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Emily DiNuzzo
Emily DiNuzzo is an associate editor at The Healthy and a former assistant staff writer at Reader's Digest. Her work has appeared online at the Food Network and Well + Good and in print at Westchester Magazine, and more. When she's not writing about food and health with a cuppa by her side, you can find her lifting heavy things at the gym, listening to murder mystery podcasts, and liking one too many astrology memes.