Absentminded or Alzheimer's?

Most of us are more likely to be absentminded than have Alzheimer's disease, but how can you tell the difference, and how can absentmindedness be overcome? WebMD gives you 6 tips to tackle this frustrating problem.

5 min read

You've lost your car keys again, your eyeglasses have disappeared into oblivion, and you walked around the mall parking lot for half an hour the other day before you could remember where you parked your car. Are you on a slippery slope to Alzheimer's disease? Or are you simply a victim of today's hectic world, in which all of us have too many things going on at once, and the minute details of our day-to-day lives are easily forgotten?

Most often, the frustrating problem of absentmindedness is to blame, and to solve it, you simply need to clean out the clutter in your life that is causing lapses in memory and train your brain to remember the things you so often forget. But occasionally, the early stages of Alzheimer's may be the culprit. Experts tell WebMD how you can tell the difference, and how absentmindedness can become a thing of the past that you've long -- and happily -- forgotten about.

"The basis of absentmindedness is a failure between memory and attention," says Daniel Schacter, PhD, author of The Seven Sins of Memory. "Usually when you are being absentminded, it's that your conscious processing is focused on something other than the task at hand; you are thinking about something else."

When you are thinking about something else, explains Schacter, the details, whether large or small, fall through the cracks of your memory.

"For example, in my book, I give the example of Yo Yo Ma, the cellist," says Schacter. "He gets in a cab in NYC and puts his $2.5 million cello in the trunk. When he arrives at his destination, he pays the cabbie, gets out of the cab, and walks off, leaving his cello in the trunk. In this situation, it's a failure of attention at the time when memory retrieval is necessary."

For most of us, it's not a $2.5 million dollar cello we need to give attention to, it's little things that usually cost a lot less but may be as equally important to everyday life.

"Absentmindedness usually includes things like, 'I can't find my glasses around the house,'" says Schacter, who is also a professor and chairman of the psychology department at Harvard University.

Whether it's glasses or car keys, or a cello, the busier you are, the more likely you are to be absentminded.

"We are all living in a multitasking society," says George T. Grossberg, MD. "Many people just have sensory overload, in which they have too many things going on at once, making them more likely to be absentminded."

Absentmindedness, explains Grossberg, is akin to a personality trait; most likely, an absentminded person would say he or she has been that way their whole life, constantly trying to juggle tasks, and inevitably, some tasks get forgotten. But as people age and tend to get busier, that trait seems more pronounced as people deal with increasingly hectic schedules.

"As people get older and busier with their careers and families, they may be more absentminded, but a defining characteristic of this is that it does not interfere with a person's ability to successfully conduct his or her life," says Grossberg, who is the director of geriatric psychiatry at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.

When absentmindedness does interfere with a person's ability to function on a daily basis, then it's a sign that something beyond a busy schedule or lack of attention to detail may be to blame.

"We worry about the individual who isn't able to recall previously learned and stored pieces of information, not just on demand, but later, when those things don't come back at all," says Grossberg. "For instance, someone who misplaces their keys and gets frustrated and runs around looking for them may be absentminded. On the other hand, the individual who misplaces their keys, doesn't know they are lost, and then forgets what they are for, that's a much different level of impairment."

In people who may be suffering from the first signs of Alzheimer's, explains Grossberg, it becomes obvious that absentmindedness isn't the only problem.

"In addition to the forgetfulness, other things are occurring that can be warning signs of Alzheimer's disease," Grossberg tells WebMD. "There are difficulties with speech, problem solving, and planning. There are changes in the ability to write, or to comprehend instructions."

With Alzheimer's, these changes are occurring in such a way that they are affecting a person's ability to conduct their day-to-day life successfully.

"I recently saw a patient who was brought in by her family," says Grossberg. "She was in her early 80s. The first warning sign of Alzheimer's was that they kept getting phone calls, several weeks in a row, from department stores and restaurants. Their mother was leaving her purse behind at the different places she went. The alarm sounded because not only did their mother not know where the purse was, she didn't even know it was missing."

Signs like these indicate Alzheimer's disease and usually warrant a trip to the doctor's office for further evaluation and treatment, Grossberg explains. But for general absentmindedness, there are easy solutions that can help solve this frustrating problem.

To tackle the annoying problem of absentmindedness, try these simple tips that will help you remember:

  1. Simplify your life. "Don't be overwhelmed by too many things at once, and take tasks one at a time," says Grossberg.
  2. Get proper rest and nutrition so you are in a well-rested frame of mind.
  3. Keep to a schedule. "People who stick to a schedule are less absentminded than people who don't," says Grossberg.
  4. Get plenty of exercise, both physical and mental. "Challenge the brain in new and creative ways throughout life," Grossberg tells WebMD. "Join a book club, learn to play chess, or use your right hand instead of your left if you're left-handed."
  5. Keep items that you use every day in the same place all the time. "Find a place in your house and consistently put your keys or your eyeglasses there, like on the mantle or on the table by the door," says Schacter. "If you are rigid about it, you will always find them in their spots when you go looking for them."
  6. Make effective use of cues and reminders, like sticky notes or a calendar. "Most absentminded errors can be overcome by having access to reminders," says Schacter. "In the case of Yo Yo Ma, if he had written down that he needed to get his cello out of the trunk of the cab, he wouldn't have forgotten it."

As annoying as absentmindedness can be, it can also easily be overcome. Start by making your life a little easier, and you'll find that you can forget about having trouble with memory again.

Published June 23, 2003.