Forgetfulness: What's Normal and What's Not

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Elizabeth Hanes, RN on December 10, 2020
  • Senior Woman and granddaughter preparing salad
    Five Types of Normal Forgetfulness—and Two Warning Signs
    You’re telling a funny story about a colleague during a company party, and suddenly you can’t recall the colleague’s name. Embarrassing? Yes. But is this also a sign of Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia? Probably not. The aging brain does tend to forget things occasionally, and that’s normal. However, if you start experiencing significant memory loss that disrupts your daily life and prevents you from performing common tasks, then it’s time to see your doctor. See if you can spot which of these types of forgetfulness are normal—and which might be more serious.
  • Portrait of laughing office workers
    1. Forgetting Someone’s Name
    Normal. It happens to everyone from time to time: You’re talking about a relative, friend or colleague but can’t recall their name. It might be embarrassing, but it’s probably not a sign of dementia. As you age, your brain can experience momentary trouble remembering names, appointments, and other details of everyday life. If you remember the information later, that’s a sign your temporary forgetfulness is not cause for concern. But if this memory loss persists and becomes disruptive, such as forgetting an appointment and not remembering you made it in the first place, then you should talk to your doctor about your memory issues.
  • closeup image of senior man holding up car keys to camera
    2. Forgetting Where You Put the Car Keys
    Normal. As you tear the house apart searching for your keys for what feels like the millionth time, you may wonder if this forgetfulness is a sign of impending dementia. Fortunately, it probably isn’t. According to Harvard Medical School, absentmindedness is a normal type of memory issue that arises from not fully focusing on an action in the moment. In other words, you didn’t pay attention to where you put the keys, so your brain didn’t encode the memory. Absentmindedness is only a sign of Alzheimer’s if you’re also unable to retrace your actions to find the item you’re missing.
  • men playing chess
    3. Forgetting the Rules of Your Favorite Game
    Cause for Concern. After a lifetime of playing bridge each week, it might be embarrassing to discover you’re making errors because you’ve forgotten some of the rules. This type of forgetfulness can be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, memory trouble that makes it hard to complete routine tasks like balancing the checkbook or driving to church–or playing a favorite game like bridge–warrants a trip to the doctor for an evaluation.
  • Hispanic businesswoman talking on cell phone in office
    4. Inability to Recall a Word That’s “Right on the Tip of the Tongue”
    Normal. Few things can feel as maddening as “knowing” the word you want but being unable to immediately recall it. This type of memory problem is called “blocking” and is completely normal. According to Harvard Medical School, blocking often occurs when a similar word or competing memory aggressively intrudes on your consciousness and blocks you from instantly retrieving the memory you actually seek. If your ability to recall words becomes so severe it impairs your ability to hold a conversation, however, then you should see a doctor for a cognitive evaluation.
  • writing in planner
    5. Forgetting the Day of the Week
    Cause for Concern. Many people momentarily confuse a Tuesday for a Wednesday, but it can be a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease if a person routinely fails to know what day of the week it is. This type of forgetfulness also can include an inability to sense time passing, such as thinking something that happened months ago occurred only yesterday or, conversely, believing an appointment is tomorrow instead of two weeks from now. Another sign is forgetting where you are or how you arrived there. These types of serious memory problems should be evaluated by a physician.
  • Businesswoman using technologies at desk in home office
    6. Forgetting to Pay a Bill (Once or Twice)
    Normal. During the hectic course of everyday life, it’s entirely possible to forget to pay a bill on time. That sort of thing happens to everyone from time to time and shouldn’t be a cause for concern about Alzheimer’s disease. However, if the forgetfulness evolves into trouble managing the household budget as a whole or regularly failing to pay most of the bills on time, then it could be a sign of cognitive decline that warrants a doctor’s evaluation.
  • Senior father and son talking while having coffee on sofa
    7. Forgetting Who Did What…or When They Did It
    Normal. For the hundredth time, Dad is telling that hilarious story about the time you and your brother Tom…wait a minute. Was it Tom…or your other brother, Ron? Misremembering the players in an old family tale is a common type of normal forgetfulness called “misattribution.” In this case, the brain remembers the major points of an old story but forgets small details, such as the exact people involved or where it took place—or even precisely when it happened. No cause for alarm if this occurs to you.
Forgetfulness, Memory Loss & Dementia: What's Normal & What's Not

About The Author

As “the nurse who knows content,” Elizabeth Hanes, RN, works with national and regional healthcare systems, brands, agencies and publishers to produce all types of consumer-facing content. Formerly a perioperative and cosmetic surgery nurse, Elizabeth today uses her nursing knowledge to inform her writing on a wide variety of medical, health and wellness topics.
  1. 10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Association.
  2. Do Memory Problems Always Mean Alzheimer’s Disease? U.S. National Institute on Aging.
  3. Forgetfulness – 7 Types of Normal Memory Problems. Harvard Medical School.

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Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 10
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