Mild Forgetfulness or Alzheimer’s Disease? Understanding the Symptoms and What to Do

Posted on December 30, 2012 by VITAL WorkLife

Eldery father adult son grandson walk in park_small-1A certain amount of memory loss or mild forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. Worrying about memory loss is also a normal part of aging.

As people in their 50s and 60s see older friends and relatives struggling with severe memory loss issues or Alzheimer's disease, they often become anxious when they misplace their car keys or can't call to mind a word or name they've used a thousand times before.

"Mild forgetfulness is common as you approach retirement, but I know for some it can be alarming," notes Liz Ferron, senior EAP consultant for VITAL WorkLife. "Things you wouldn't have noticed in your twenties suddenly make you worried about losing your mind."

A simple way to think about the difference between mild forgetfulness and Alzheimer's is:

  • Forgetting where you put your car keys is normal at any age—particularly if you're very busy or under a lot of stress.
  • Holding your car keys in your hand and having no idea that they are there is typically a sign of a serious memory problem.

There are ways to "work around" mild forgetfulness—but if you're concerned about symptoms of serious memory problems, including dementia and Alzheimer's Disease, you should seek immediate medical help.

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia among older people. An irreversible, progressive brain disease that affects early 5.1 million Americans over the age of 60, Alzheimer's disease destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living. The signs of Alzheimer's begin slowly and get worse over time.

According to the Alzheimer's Foundation, typical warning signs of Alzheimer's include:

  • Confusion about time and place
  • Struggling to complete familiar actions, such as brushing teeth or getting dressed
  • Trouble finding the appropriate words, completing sentences, and following directions and conversations
  • Poor judgment when making decisions
  • Changes in mood and personality, such as increased suspicion, rapid and persistent mood swings, withdrawal and disinterest in usual activities
  • Difficulty with complex mental assignments, such as balancing a checkbook or other tasks involving numbers

As the illness gets worse, people with Alzheimer's disease may need someone to take care of all their needs at home or in a nursing home. These needs may include feeding, bathing and dressing.

There are medications that can help a person in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. They keep symptoms, such as memory loss, from getting worse for a time. The medicines can have side effects and may not work for everyone. Talk with your doctor about side effects or other concerns you may have.

What can Family Members do to Help?

If a family member or friend has a serious memory problem, try helping them to live as normal a life as possible. Encourage him or her to stay active, go places and keep up everyday routines. You can remind the person of the time of day, where he or she lives, and what's happening at home and in the world. You also can help the person remember to take medicine or visit the doctor.

Caring for parents with serious memory problems is often difficult. It can be frightening to watch parents lose their grip on memories still precious to you. You may resent the time and cost involved in arranging for care—or the fact that your parents may resist admitting they're experiencing any difficulties at all.

"The role reversal of parent and child can be very stressful," says Ferron. "Adult children often feel tremendous guilt about not doing enough, being impatient or losing their tempers when dealing with fractious or forgetful parents."

Serious Memory Problems

According to the NIH, certain medical conditions can cause serious memory problems. These problems should go away once you get treatment. Some medical conditions that may cause memory problems are:

  • Reactions to certain medicines
  • Depression
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Blood clots or tumors in the brain
  • Head injuries, such as a concussions from a fall or accident
  • Thyroid, kidney or liver problems

These medical conditions can be serious. See your doctor immediately for treatment if you suspect any of these may be an issue.

Tips for Keeping Your Mind Alert

While mild forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the following activities to help keep your memory sharp and stay alert:

  • Learn a new skill.
  • Volunteer in your community, at a school or at your place of worship.
  • Spend time with friends and family.
  • Use memory tools such as big calendars, to-do lists and notes to yourself.
  • Put your wallet or purse, keys and glasses in the same place each day.
  • Get lots of rest.
  • Exercise and eat well.
  • Don't drink a lot of alcohol.
  • Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time.

Coping With Alzheimer's: We Can Help

VITAL WorkLife has consultants on staff who can help you assess whether it's time to test a parent or loved senior for Alzheimer's—and discuss alternative care and treatment options.

"We're also here to provide support when your parent's condition is affecting your work, your marriage and your overall quality of life," says Ferron. "We've supported many individuals and families through this difficult life passage. Nobody has to go it alone."

Simply call 800.383.1908—any time of the day or night—for a free, confidential consultation. Our consultants can:

  • Provide counseling for you and members of your family by telephone or in face-to-face sessions
  • Refer you to organizations that specialize in helping families cope with aging parents, memory problems and Alzheimer's disease
  • Evaluate treatment and care options to create a plan that works for you, your parents and your family

Helpful Online Resources

Your EAP benefit also includes unlimited access to a wealth of web-based Work & Life Resources at the VITAL WorkLife website, including the following articles on memory-related issues:

  • Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Loss
  • Can Dementia Be Prevented?
  • Caring for Older Adults: The Medical Information File
  • A Good Night's Sleep for Seniors: Parts 1 & 2

Accessing these resources is easy. Simply follow these steps:

  1. To find these articles, go to, click on member login and enter your user name and password.
  2. On the page that comes up, in the left hand column, click on the "Your Work & Life Resources" button.
  3. In the shaded area at the top of the screen, click on the pull down menu that says "Thriving" and pull down to "Senior's Health."
  4. In the Categories box on the right side of the Personal Growth page, click on "Common Health Concerns."

Interested in learning more?


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