Memory loss symptoms vs dementia

Memory loss is often considered the first sign of dementia, however there are many different reasons for experiencing memory loss in later life. In this guide we cover everything from forgetfulness to more severe cognitive impairment.

Changes associated with ageing can include the slowing down of the brain and body. This is not necessarily anything to worry about, as often our intelligence and behaviour will stay the same, even though it may sometimes take us longer to process information.

Many of us may experience a type of memory loss as we age too. This is most often may caused by the ageing process itself, but can also be caused or made worse by a medical condition or head injury.

Memory loss can span from forgetting place names, to forgetting significant life events. 

Forgetfulness

Many older adults experience forgetfulness or short-term memory loss to some extent. You should not be overly concerned if you find yourself in a room and cannot remember what you entered it for, or are unable to recall the name of a film or a familiar address. Sometimes, if given more time, you’ll recall the missing information.

While it can sometimes be an early sign of dementia, it’ll usually be accompanied by additional symptoms such as confusion and a decline in thinking skills. 

As well as the normal ageing process, the following can cause and make memory loss worse:

  • A lack of sleep, or trouble getting restful sleep
  • Taking a type of medication that has a sedative effect,  such as some anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs, and certain blood pressure medications
  • Drinking alcohol or smoking, which reduces the amount of oxygen getting to the brain 
  • Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiency 
  • Thyroid disease which causes the thyroid gland to become either under-active or overactive  

 

Common signs of forgetfulness include:  

  • Having to ask the same questions more than once
  • Forgetting where you put things from time to time, such as your keys or glasses
  • Forgetting recent events
  • Forgetting something you recently saw, read or did
 
Memory aids such as memo boards, diaries, flashcards and wall planners will usually be enough to help you to manage memory lapses in daily life.

Amnesia

Amnesia is the common name for any unusual forgetfulness or a more worrying loss of memory  – this means memory loss that’s more profound than forgetting the occasional name or conversation. In films and television programmes this is often portrayed as someone forgetting who they are, but this rarely happens in most cases of amnesia.

Unlike age related forgetfulness, and dementia related memory loss, amnesia can be reversible. It’s often caused by emotional trauma such as PTSD, as well as physical damage to the brain, such as:   

  • Head injuries
  • Brain infection or inflammation
  • Stroke 
  • Long term alcohol or drug use
  • Brain tumours in the areas responsible for memory

 

Symptoms of amnesia include:

  • Finding it hard to recall facts, events and specific details
  • forgetting names of people, or familiar locations
  • Struggling to learn new information
  • Subconsciously inventing false memories to make up for the memory ‘gaps’
 

Usually the degree of memory impairment will depend on the amount of damage caused to the brain, and which area of the brain is the most affected.

Mild Cognitive Impairment

If you become aware that you or a loved one is having frequent memory problems, it may be a sign of Mild Cognitive Impairment, also known as MCI. MCI does not usually affect your ability to live independently or  your quality of life.

However, close friends and family are likely to notice a slow decline in your mental abilities as well as your memory.

People who have this condition do, however, have an increased risk of dementia, such as developing Alzheimer’s disease, although this isn’t always inevitable.

In some cases mild cognitive impairment is caused by treatable conditions or a physical illness such as:

  • Conditions that impact the thyroid, kidney or liver
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Conditions that harm the blood supply to your brain. E.g a brain tumour, stroke, ischemic attack (or mini stroke), or normal pressure hydrocephalus – which is a term for fluid collection in the brain.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Vision or hearing problems
  • Depression, stress, and anxiety
  • History of taking illegal drugs, or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol

 

Common symptoms of mild cognitive impairment include: 

  • Losing or misplacing things
  • Regularly forgetting important appointments or events.
  • Difficulty following a conversation, or generally becoming distracted easily
  • Having trouble coming up with the right words in a conversation
  • Trouble remembering the names of a new people you meet
  • Finding tasks like paying bills, taking medications, or shopping tricky

Dulcie’s care story

Duclie is one of our longest serving customers. In this video her and her family talk through their decision to arrange care in the home rather than the care home.


Can a brain scan detect memory problems?

If you’re experiencing a disturbance of memory, speak to your GP about your symptoms. It may help to bring a loved one with you who can share some examples of your recent memory loss too. A GP will likely ask you some questions about your overall health and lifestyle, and look at your medical history to assess whether what you’re experiencing is age-related memory loss. If they think it could be something more, they may want to do some blood tests or urine tests too. In the UK, you won’t usually be offered a brain scan for short-term memory problems or forgetfulness. However, if your GP wants to rule out brain injury or dementia you may be referred to a specialist who may perform some imaging tests. One of the more widely used scans is MRI, which stands for Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It uses strong magnetic fields to create detailed images of the inside of the brain.

Dementia

The term dementia can cover symptoms caused by various conditions, including Alzheimer’s, which involves a more severe mental decline. Abilities such as language, memory, abstract thinking and judgment can be affected to the

The term dementia can cover symptoms caused by various conditions, including Alzheimer’s, which involves a more severe mental decline. Abilities such as language, memory, abstract thinking and judgment can be affected to the extent that they severely disrupt daily activities. If you or a loved on no longer enjoys hobbies or social activities or loses interest in family relationships, they may be experiencing the development of a cognitive problem such as dementia.

Because there are over 100 different forms of dementia, and the signs can vary from person to person, it’s always recommended to speak to your GP if you’re worried about any form of memory loss.

Dementia & memory loss

According to research published by Alzheimer’s Society UK, 70 per cent of people in care homes are living with dementia or severe memory problems.

Symptoms of Dementia

A person with dementia may have difficulty with normal activities such as dressing appropriately, paying bills or washing up. They may be unable to remember times when their memory loss has caused a problem or recognise social cues. Another symptom of dementia is the inability to follow simple directions. Conversations can become garbled, or they may repeat a story or a particular phrase in the same conversation. If faced with a choice, someone with dementia may have trouble making a decision, or display poor judgment. These symptoms among others may indicate something more serious than normal age-related changes, and should be taken as a sign to speak to a GP for advice.

Discover more of our articles on dementia

From dealing with a diagnosis and understanding the implications to getting advice on how to live well with the condition, our extensive resources will help guide you through what can be a tough and emotional moment.

Can people with memory loss get their memories back?

This really depends on the cause of memory loss. In instances where there has been damage to brain tissue or where brain cells have died – such as with dementia – memories may be lost for good over time. There are exercises and games that can keep the brain active and slow down mental decline, but these can only do so much. In cases of amnesia however, there have been reported cases of people remembering things very suddenly, after many years, usually once the root cause has been treated and the brain has had time to recover or repair itself. It may be comforting to remember that, in most cases of memory loss older memories – which have been recalled more often throughout a person’s life are more embedded than newer ones, and as such are often the ones that stick around the longest.

Elderly Care for People with Dementia

Those living with dementia can react poorly to changes in their environment, and admission to a residential care home or nursing home can be quite traumatic for them. A preferable alternative may be private live-in care. This involves a live-in carer moving into the home with you or a loved one and providing 24/7 assistance to support them in whatever way you need. Private care providers aim to match carers carefully with care recipients to ensure that they will forge a good relationship. Some staff have training in dementia care and experience in dealing with the challenges of the condition. In addition to in-home care and supporting cognitive function, a live-in carer will carry out domestic tasks such as cleaning, shopping, laundry and meal preparation. The exact details of their role should be decided upon before the placement starts and be flexible enough to meet all of your needs.

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