Forgetfulness: When to Worry

close-up of elderly person's hands folded in black and whiteYou’re standing in your kitchen, knowing you came in there to take care of something important. You can’t—for the life of yours—remember what you needed. As you stand there, you feel a slight chill. Is this the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease?

Or maybe it’s your parent you’re worried about. Maybe they’re forgetting names or misusing words more often. How do you know if it’s just normal aging or if it’s something more serious?

You should always discuss your concerns with your or your loved one’s doctor. But to get you started, here’s how to differentiate between what’s normal and what’s not.


Alzheimer’s warning sign: memory loss that disrupts daily life.  Your loved one has trouble remembering more recently learned information, forgets special dates like their wedding anniversary, or relies heavily on family members to remember things they used to manage on their own.

Typical aging: You sometimes forget a name or something you wanted to do, but you remember it later.

Problem Solving

Alzheimer’s warning sign: sudden or gradual inability to follow a plan or work with numbers. Mom may not be able to complete a recipe, or she has trouble paying monthly bills. You may notice Dad can’t concentrate like he used to, and everything takes much longer for him to do.

Typical aging: an occasional late payment, or a calculation error when balancing your checkbook.

Activities of Daily Living

Alzheimer’s warning sign: difficulty with familiar tasks. Mom or Dad is having trouble with basic activities they’ve performed for years. They may not remember how to operate the coffee machine, or have trouble recalling the rules of a favorite game.

Typical aging: you might need help every now and then with newer technology.

Understanding Time

Alzheimer’s warning sign: confusion with time or place. Your parent or loved one is constantly losing track of the time, date, or seasons. They may be confused about the passage of time; they don’t understand phrases like “next week” or “in two months.”

Typical aging: you sometimes forget what day of the week it is, but you realize the right day soon after.

Visual Images and Spatial Relationships

Alzheimer’s warning sign: trouble making sense of what they see. You notice your loved one has difficulty reading or judging distances. They may mix up colors or objects.

Typical aging: you need a higher prescription, or you develop a cataract.

Word Retrieval

Alzheimer’s warning sign: difficulty following a conversation. Your mom or dad often stops while conversing, and can’t seem to find the words to continue. They may repeat themselves a lot while searching for their next words. You may also notice they call things by the wrong name—for example, calling a “knee” a “leg-elbow.”

Typical aging: you sometimes grope for the right word, but you quickly move on.

Misplacing Things

Alzheimer’s warning sign: losing things and being unable to find them. Your loved one puts things in unusual places, and has trouble retracing their steps to locate them.

Typical aging: you sometimes misplace your things, and you’re able to go back over your steps to find them.

Poor Judgment

Alzheimer’s warning sign: showing exceptionally poor judgment, sometimes endangering themselves. Your parent may fall for scams, or cross busy streets against the light.

Typical aging: you make a bad decision every now and then, realize it later, and regret it.

Mood and Personality

Alzheimer’s warning sign: changes in mood and personality. Mom or Dad is suddenly paranoid, depressed, fearful, or anxious. They may become upset easily, especially when they’re out of their comfort zone. If they misplaced something, they may accuse you or others of stealing.

Typical aging: you become set in your ways and sometimes become irritable when your routine changes.


If you find yourself nodding along with any of these warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, don’t wait. Speak with your or your loved one’s doctor right away. The earlier you detect it, the better your chances of slowing the progression of the disease.