Skip to content

Forgetting This One Thing Can Mean You Have Dementia

How to tell when memory lapses are a sign of something serious.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Mild cognitive decline and memory lapses are a normal part of aging—but at what point do memory issues point to something more serious? "In some cases — usually very early dementia — it can be quite hard to decide whether a person's struggles have become  enough to qualify as 'impairment of daily life function,'" says Leslie Kernisan, MD, MPH. "If someone isn't taking his medication, is that just regular forgetfulness? Ambivalent feelings about the medication? Or actual impairment due to brain changes?" Here's how to know if your memory problems could be a sign of dementia. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Difficulty With Multiple Types of Mental Function

senior woman texting at home, using app to screen for Alzheimer's

Dementia is more than memory loss—there are many types of mental function that can be affected. "Although it's common for memory to be affected, other parts of thinking function can be impaired," says Dr. Kernisan. "The 2013 DSM-5 manual lists these six types of cognitive function to consider: learning and memory, language, executive function, complex attention, perceptual-motor function, social cognition. The difficulties are a decline from the person's prior level of ability. These can't be lifelong problems with reading or math or even social graces. These problems should represent a change, compared to the person's usual abilities as an adult."


Early Diagnosis Is Key

middle-aged man chatting with doctor

While there is no "cure" for dementia, treatment can make a huge difference in terms of managing symptoms and overall quality of life. "The earlier we diagnose a patient, the better the options we have to treat their symptoms," says neurologist Douglas Scharre, MD. "We have numerous treatments that can slow cognitive decline, but they're more effective the sooner we can begin deploying them. Your doctor will conduct a series of tests to determine the severity and cause of your symptoms. These may include brain-imaging tests or other lab tests. Your doctor will also work to rule out other possible causes, such as previous strokes or Parkinson's disease. Doctors might also speak with family members to determine whether your behavior has changed recently, or to assess the frequency of symptoms."


Short-Term Memory Issues

Close up of mature woman look in distance thinking.

"All of us forget things for a while and then remember them later," according to American Family Physician. "People with dementia often forget things but never remember them. They might ask you the same question over and over, each time forgetting that you already answered that question. They won't even remember that they already asked that question."


Can COVID-19 Cause Alzheimer's?

Infected patient in quarantine lying in bed in hospital.

Research shows that long COVID can cause brain changes similar to those seen in Alzheimer's disease. "In older people, people over 60, the foremost manifestation is forgetfulness," says Dr. Gabriel de Erausquin, a professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio. "These folks tend to forget where they placed things, they tend to forget names, they tend to forget phone numbers. They also have trouble with language; they begin forgetting words. Those people look really bad right now. And the expectation is that it may behave as Alzheimer's behaves, in a progressive fashion. But the true answer is we don't know."


This One Thing Can Mean Dementia

Senior woman in consultation with her female doctor or therapist

Memory loss that gets progressively worse over time is a strong sign of dementia—especially when cognitive decline makes normal, independent day-to-day life impossible. "The problems are bad enough to impair daily life function," says Dr. Kernisan. It's not enough for a person to have an abnormal result on an office-based cognitive test. The problems also have to be substantial enough to affect how the person manages usual life, such as work and family responsibilities." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan