Aging can cause mild forgetfulness, but Alzheimer’s disease can cause significant changes in memory, mood, and personality.

Aging can affect memory in subtle ways. However, Alzheimer’s disease (AD) causes significant changes in cognitive abilities that are not a normal part of aging.

This article compares normal signs of aging with signs of AD. It also discusses symptoms to watch for and when to contact a doctor.

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Normal signs of aging can include mild forgetfulness. People may have occasional difficulty remembering names, appointments, or where they left something. However, they may be able to remember these things later or retrace their steps to find a misplaced item.

Age-associated memory impairment

Memory loss that occurs as a normal part of aging is referred to as age-associated memory impairment.

According to the National Institute on Aging, forgetfulness can be a normal part of increasing age. Getting older may have mild effects on cognitive abilities, such as the time it takes to learn something new.

As people age, changes can occur in the brain as part of the normal aging process. People may find it takes longer to recall information, or they may occasionally forget things.

AD is not a normal process of aging. It results from changes to nerve cells in the brain.

Plaques and tangles play a large role in AD. Plaques are protein deposits that build up in between nerve cells. Tangles are fibers of protein that build up within cells in the brain.

Most people will develop some plaques and tangles as they age. However, those that cause AD are more severe.

The signs and symptoms of AD are different from those of normal aging. Normal aging may cause some memory issues, but these are mild, and they:

  • do not disrupt everyday life
  • do not alter how people can carry out everyday tasks
  • do not cause difficulty remembering or learning new things
  • only cause occasional forgetfulness
  • are only due to aging, not an underlying condition

Memory problems may indicate AD include if they:

  • affect a person’s daily life
  • cause difficulty learning new things
  • cause difficulty carrying out regular, familiar tasks
  • cause concern for other people

The following table compares normal age-related changes with signs of AD.

Normal agingAlzheimer’s disease
occasionally forgetting things, such as appointments or names, but remembering them later onforgetting information they have recently learned, asking for the same information repeatedly, or heavily relying on reminders such as notes or devices
sometimes misplacing items, such as glasses or the TV remote, but being able to retrace steps to find themputting items in unusual places and being unable to retrace steps to find them
needing occasional help with tasks, such as recording a TV show or setting up a new devicedifficulty carrying out everyday tasks, such as food shopping or driving to a familiar place
being confused about the day of the week but realizing later onlosing track of time and place, such as being confused about the passing of time or how they got to where they are
sometimes having difficulty finding the right wordexperiencing difficulty following a conversation or joining in and having trouble finding the right vocabulary
experiencing an occasional lapse in good judgment or decision-makinghaving altered judgment and decision-making, such as decreased self-care or ability to handle money
sometimes feeling less interested in attending social events or get-togetherswithdrawing from other people, hobbies, and social activities
wanting to do things a set way and feeling irritable with disruption to routinesexperiencing significant changes in mood and personality and possibly feeling distressed when out of their comfort zone
experiencing vision changes due to eye issues, such as cataractsexperiencing vision changes that may cause difficulty reading, balancing, judging distances, or driving
making occasional mistakes while managing bills or financesdecreased ability to develop and follow plans or work with numbers, such as keeping track of bills; difficulty concentrating or taking much longer to do things than previously

If people have any concerns about their memory or if a loved one is showing signs of AD, it is important to talk with a doctor. They can answer any questions, assess symptoms, and perform necessary tests.

A doctor can identify whether the symptoms people are experiencing are related to AD, aging, or other issues. These can include a vitamin deficiency or medication side effect.

Getting an AD diagnosis early can help people start treatment and plan for the best ways to manage the condition.

For further information and support, people may find the following helpful:

This section answers some frequently asked questions about Alzheimer’s and normal aging.

At what age does forgetfulness begin?

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, around 40% of people may experience some type of memory loss after the age of 65. This is usually mild and does not affect everyday living.

What are the red flags of Alzheimer’s?

The warning signs of AD include:

  • memory loss that affects everyday life
  • difficulty with planning and problem-solving
  • difficulty with familiar tasks
  • confusion about time and place
  • problems with special awareness, such as trouble balancing or judging distances
  • problems with vocabulary, following a conversation, or writing
  • placing items in unusual places and being unable to retrace steps to find them
  • reduced judgment and decision-making ability
  • withdrawal from social activities
  • significant changes in mood and personality

Mild forgetfulness can occur as a normal part of aging. However, significant changes in memory and thinking may be a sign of AD.

If people have any concerns about memory or other symptoms, it is important to contact a doctor. They will be able to check for any underlying causes.