Forgetfulness is something all of us experience throughout our lives, especially as we age. Brain fog—which, while not a medical term, describes the feeling that you don’t have full mental clarity—can even be caused by lack of sleep, increased stress, or certain foods in your diet.

But what’s the distinction between normal forgetting and lapses in concentration versus early signs of cognitive deterioration?

“The experience of walking into a room and asking yourself, ‘Now what did I come in here for?’ or spending too much time looking for your glasses that have been perched on your head are frustratingly common but probably benign examples of memory issues related more to inattentiveness and distractibility than serious brain pathology,” says John Michael Heath, M.D., who practices geriatric medicine in Hackensack. “But it can be a source of concern for individuals and their loved ones when happening with greater frequency or causing more than simple inconvenience.”

Sorting out the Seriousness of Memory Issues

Dr. Heath offers two litmus tests that can help sort out the seriousness of memory issues.

1) Remembering Your Reminders

Lists and voice memos on our cell phones or electronic devices, white boards, planners and wall calendars are all devices we have adopted to help remember important events, dates and people. “But these memory aids have to be utilized—they have to be remembered—to be effective,” Dr. Heath says. If you find yourself increasingly forgetting to check your reminders, it may be a sign you should speak with your doctor about further evaluation.

2) Forgetting You Forgot

“Most people with normal memory lapses that are associated with the waxing and waning of our mental concentration and focus will still have a sense that we are forgetting something,” Dr. Heath says. “Usually this memory lapse is temporary in nature and, while frustrating, reflects a time delay of information retrieval rather than an inability to recall.” But “forgetting you forgot” is often an early symptom of pathologic cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive dementing conditions.

If you find it increasingly problematic to use the reminder systems that previously have been useful or you are being told by your loved ones that you appear unaware of your forgetfulness, talk to your doctor and seek out further assessment of your cognitive health.

Next Steps & Resources:

Other resources from Hackensack Meridian Health: