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Is Forgetting Words and Names a Sign of Dementia?

August 12, 2022

Yes, it’s agony when you can’t quite recall a word that you know you know — the dreaded “tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon. And maybe you’ve been noticing it more with age. But is it a sign of dementia? Collective sigh of relief: It’s probably nothing to worry about. “Not being able to recall a word or name is certainly annoying. But usually, that’s all it is,” says Hartford HealthCare geriatrician Taimur Habib, MD. “For most people, it’s not a sign of something worse.” > Worried about memory? Schedule an appointment

“Tip-of-the-tongue” moments happen to everyone.

Turns out that tip-of-the-tongue moments are so common, they even have an official name: lethologica. Researchers say these types of memory recall glitches occur universally, across languages and ages. In fact, surveys suggest that nine out of 10 people experience them. In other words: Around the globe at any given moment, humans can be found muttering their version of, “Wait, I know this” and “It starts with C” and “No, seriously, I know this.”

Older adults have more tip-of-the-tongue moments.

Still, if you’ve been noticing more of these moments with age, you’re not imagining things. For most people, memory recall worsens a bit as they grow older. As a result, the tip-of-the-tongue issue shows up more often. How often? Several studies took a look. They found that younger adults had trouble recalling a word or item about once a week. For older adults, it was closer to once a day.

Some memory recall issues are normal for an aging brain.

The brain is a complicated organ. With age, certain parts shrink. Some areas may show a decrease in blood flow, and neural connections can wear down. Inflammatory response to illness or injury can be more pronounced. Of course, this all can take a toll on memory. For most people, these age-related changes show up in frustrating but generally harmless ways. You might forget the name of a former colleague, misplace the car keys every now and then, or take longer to learn something new. Most of the time, that’s nothing to worry about.

When could memory issues be related to dementia or something else?

Here’s a quick breakdown. Normal signs of an aging brain:
  • Occasional difficulty finding words.
  • Forgetting the names of acquaintances.
  • You’re worried about your memory, but your loved ones are not.
When to talk to a doctor:
  • Forgetting the names of family members.
  • Memory issues affect your ability to complete normal tasks.
  • Your loved ones are worried about your memory, but you haven’t noticed any problems.
“In general, when memory issues start to interfere with your daily life, it’s time to see your doctor,” says Dr. Habib.

If you or a family member is worried about your memory, talk to a doctor.

“Lots of things can affect our attention and memory,” says Dr. Habib, “including conditions that aren’t due to dementia.” For instance, you may be experiencing the effects of poor sleep, stress, a hearing issue or certain medications. So if you’re worried about your memory, talk to your primary care doctor. They can help you get to the bottom of what’s going on — or reassure you that you’re simply experiencing the normal effects of aging. As for those painful tip-of-the-tongue moments? You’ll have to learn to live with those.