Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


Rather than Worry about Dementia, Forget About it! Young people forget things all the time -- why can't we?

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When my granddaughter was 5 or 6, I gave her a purple plastic child's wristwatch. Oh, how she loved this glittering princess treasure. But when her visit was over and it came time to leave, she couldn't find the watch. Tears, wails! I promised to look for it and send it to her. Three years later, I found the watch in a paper bag in the back of a drawer. I quickly telephoned my daughter with the news.

But by that time, my granddaughter didn't remember the watch.

A Junior Moment? My daughter and I burst out laughing. The child had moved on; her young brain, in the process of developing its neural circuitry, had leapt ahead with new information and experiences.

It's normal for a child to have memory lapses. But what if the situation had been reversed and I was the one who had forgotten the equivalent of the purple watch?

No laughing matter. With each memory slip -- a name not recalled, an important paper misplaced -- the dread rises in the chest: an early sign of Alzheimer's disease? So great is the fear of slipping into dementia, of losing one's mind, losing one's personhood.

"That's the number one concern of middle-aged adults: the potential specter of having a disorder that causes you to lose your ability to remember, to recall, [that] changes you as a person," says Molly V. Wagster, chief of the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch at the National Institute on Aging.

And sometimes concern morphs into panic. I go back to my granddaughter and the purple watch. We adults smile at the forgetfulness of the young. Maybe we should adopt a similar attitude about our own little memory lapses. So what if I forget where I put my glasses? Loosen up, Granny!

The fear of dementia has obscured the reality of mental resilience among older men and women. "It's not good to be paranoid and panicked," cautions Wagster. "It's good to be aware."

Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, is a devastating brain disorder, and the risk of developing it increases with age. An estimated 2.4 million to 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's. The number of cases is expected to double by 2030 because the population of those older than 65 is projected to double to 72 million. Among men and women 72 and older, about one in seven has some form of dementia, according to NIA estimates.

Memory loss alone does not mean that a person has dementia. The diagnosis generally involves a persistent pattern of memory lapses along with impaired judgment, difficulty with language, confusion, changes in personality and social behavior. Or, as health professionals often quip: It's not about forgetting where you put your car keys; it's forgetting what your keys are for, or putting them in the refrigerator.

Yes, the healthy brain changes with age -- for the better. As people get older, they have richer vocabularies and are better storytellers; they have better understanding of what is important in a mass of information than college students do, according to studies by Denise C. Park at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Older people also take longer to learn new things. The speed of processing information as well as memory recall starts to slow down in the 30s. With each decade, it gets harder to pull up a name, the title of a movie, a street address. "These changes occur around a time in our life when we may be extraordinarily busy," Wagster says. People may have teenage or college-age children and older parents; they may be in a very intense period at work. "It's not unusual," continues Wagster, to "have periods of being sort of scattered."

The Web site for the Mayo Clinic puts it this way: "Everyone has occasional lapses in memory. It's normal to forget where you put your car keys or to blank on the names of people whom you rarely see."

I think of my grandson who came for a recent visit. In the morning, as we are about to go on an expedition, he shouts: "Where's my other sneaker? I can't find my sneaker!" And I say: "Where did you last put your sneakers?" His reply: "I don't remember!" And I nag: "If you would put them in the same place. . . . "

It's a variation on the car-key theme: If you put the keys in the same place every time, you wouldn't forget where they are.

And then I smile. A little forgetfulness is normal at any age.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

back to top

other articles


A little extra weight may not be a big deal as time goes by

Some longtime couples find that not breaking up is hard to do

Long goodbye of the elderly can create crises for family caregivers

Julia Child's co-author succeeded in the kitchen but also in second half of life

Obama's struggle with health-care reform echoes Clintons' failure in 1994


Doing time well past their prime

Rather than Worry about Dementia, Forget About it!

The Pauses That Refresh

Not Too Old To Do Wrong

A Sisterhood That Edures for Decades

Looking for Heroes? Many of Them Are in the AARP Generation

The Kids Are Gone. Now What Is Marriage All About?

Falling in Love Again: It's Never Too Late

Now You're Talking: Fear Plus Rage Can Lead to Action

Boom and Doom


In a Role Reversal, the Older Generation Tests the Limits

An Extra Ten and Young Again

Passing Down a Family Legacy

Diagnosis Shock - responding to illness

Raging, Aging Sisters Prove It's Good to Be a Woman

In the End, Love Prevails

Advice to Boomers

Ten Resolutions to change the culture of agin


Finally it's MY TIME: A period once considered retirement age is now a time to refresh, revive and reimagine life.

Grannies wield political power.

Why not turn the life cycle upside down?

Closing the new gender gap.


Bush on Aging: Not Now

Losing your pension and fighting back

Fighting the language of Ageism

Suffering from Retired Spouse Syndrome

Getting married. . . again

Jane Fonda and Me--and our Mothers


What Went Wrong: How Wonks and Pols -- and You -- Fumbled Universal Health Care

High Time

High Time by Abigail Trafford The life of an adventurous journalist navigating her way through new territories—professional and personal in diverse locales

» more about High Time
» buy High Time

As Time Goes By:

As Time Goes By by Abigail Trafford Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity

» about this book
» buy this book

My Time:

My Time by Abigail Trafford Making the Most of the Bonus Decades After 50

» about My Time
» buy My Time

Crazy Time:

Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford Surviving Divorce & Building a New Life

» about Crazy Time
» buy Crazy Time
Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker
© 2023 Abigail Trafford
created by APART