Overview of Memory Impairment & Aging

A certain amount of forgetfulness is to be expected with age. Most people find it more difficult to recall names and words as they get older. This normal forgetfulness is by no means a symptom of dementia. The difference between the normal forgetfulness that increases with age—known as age-associated memory impairment—and dementia is that the former is frustrating but not disabling.

The memory lapses that characterize age-associated memory impairment are more likely to occur when a person is tired, sick, distracted, or under stress. Under less stressful circumstances, the person is usually able to remember the necessary information with ease.

In fact, studies have shown that older people who do poorly on timed tests actually do as well as or better than college-age adults when they are allowed to work at their own pace.

Another reassuring difference between normal forgetfulness and dementia is that people who worry about memory loss are unlikely to suffer from a serious memory condition. By contrast, people who do have a serious memory impairment tend to be unaware of their lapses, do not worry about them, or attribute them to other causes.

Nonetheless, if memory lapses interfere with normal daily functioning or if close friends and relatives believe the lapses are serious, the underlying cause may be more complex.

Publication Review By: Peter V. Rabins, M.D., M.P.H.

Published: 07 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 28 Jan 2015