When Memory is Normal and When it is Not-So-Normal

Memory and aging

Memory is defined as "the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Our ability to remember and to recall our past is what links us to our families, our friends and our community.

What is normal aging and memory?

As we age, slight changes occur in our cognition that affect memory. Simple forgetfulness (the "missing keys") and delay or slowing in recalling names, dates, and events can be part of the normal process of aging. Memory has various forms, though, that might be affected differently by aging (see table).

Preserved memory functions Declining memory functions
  • Remote memory (ability to remember events from years ago)
  • Procedural memory (performing tasks)
  • Semantic recall (general knowledge)
  • Learning new information
  • Recalling new information (takes longer to learn something new and to recall it)

What other changes occur with normal aging and cognition?

When is memory not so normal?

Amnesia ("memory loss") is not a part of the normal aging process. While it may take longer to learn new information (for example, names of people) or to recall learned information (for example, names of friends in photos), with a little time and extra effort memory occurs. Some people are more forgetful, but this might be because of health conditions (for example, depression, heart disease, thyroid disease and vitamin deficiencies) or medication effects.

Memory loss is abnormal in people with mild cognitive impairment or dementia (a loss of intellectual functions severe enough to interfere with everyday social or occupational functioning).

Mild cognitive impairment

Dementia: Memory, language, and cognition are so impaired that self-care tasks can no longer be performed without assistance from another person.

Not-so-normal memory
Condition Symptoms
Mild cognitive impairment
  • Aging
  • Pre-Alzheimer’s
  • Silent "strokes" (infarcts)
  • Head injury
  • Forgetfulness or amnesia for recent events
  • Need to write reminders to do things or else will forget
  • Struggles but is able to perform daily chores and tasks
  • Sometimes needs a reminder or prompt to remember
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Vascular (stroke)
  • Others: Pick’s, hydrocephalus, drugs/alcohol, etc.
  • Unable to perform complex daily tasks (for example, paying bills, taking medications, shopping, driving)
  • Loss of insight or awareness of memory loss
  • Poor judgment
  • Behavioral symptoms (for example, irritability worrying, anger, agitation, suspiciousness)

Can normal memory be preserved in aging?

Research has shown the following:



This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. For additional health information, please contact the Center for Consumer Health Information at the Cleveland Clinic (216) 444-3771 or toll-free (800) 223-2273 extension 43771. If you prefer, you may visit www.clevelandclinic.org/health/ or www.clevelandclinicflorida.org. This document was last reviewed on: 5/12/2016