When is memory loss more than just forgetfulness?

Those ‘senior moments’ may creep up on your parent as they get older, but how can you tell if slips in memory are a normal part of ageing or a sign of something else?

Could this be your loved one?
She keeps forgetting where she’s placed her keys, she walks around the supermarket trying to remember the one thing she went in there to get, or she walks upstairs…then has to remember why she went up. Everyone has moments like this and they’re usually nothing to worry about. But it’s still useful to know what to look out for in case these senior moments do become a little more serious.

SPOT IT: Normal forgetfulness
What happens: As we get older, our brains change making it harder for us to dredge up certain facts or memories that were stored there. This can mean it might takes us longer to learn or recall information, though most of the time whatever you seem to have forgotten will come back to you – eventually!
Why: The hormones and proteins that repair brain cells and stimulate growth in the brain start to decline with age.

Typical symptoms:
– Mom occasionally (note occasionally!) forgets where she left keys or glasses
– Dad sometimes forgets an appointment
– Dad occasionally forgets the details of a conversation
But: This kind of forgetfulness caused by normal ageing is NOT the same as having significant memory loss.

SPOT IT: Memory Loss
What happens: This is when one struggles to remember things. However, while memory loss can be a symptom of more serious conditions that lead to dementia, it definitely isn’t a guaranteed sign.
Why: Memory loss can be a sign of other health conditions so it’s worth looking at their health more generally before assuming they have dementia.

Typical symptoms:
– Dad struggles to remember things on a daily basis
– Mom has memory loss accompanied by other symptoms such as tiredness, depression or weight loss.
– Dad’s lifestyle choices – for example alcohol or drugs – are affecting his memory.
But: Memory loss is also one of the main symptoms of mild cognitive impairment (see below), so it’s wise not to ignore it.

SPOT IT: Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
What happens: Sometimes described as a precursor or intermediate stage between normal ageing and dementia, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) causes memory problems that are noticeable, but are not interfering too much with everyday life in the way that dementia can.
Why: This is a grey area and the balance between forgetfulness, MCI and dementia is delicate. While having MCI can make it more likely they’ll go on to develop dementia it’s really important to remember that this certainly isn’t inevitable.

Typical symptoms:
– One frequently loses or misplaces things
– One regularly forgets conversations, appointments or events
– One has difficulty remembering the names of people they’ve just met
– One manages to carry on with normal life, but are reliant on notes and day planners.
But: The good news is that if MCI is spotted, it gives them time to prepare, plan ahead and have earlier access to drug treatments if (and only IF) dementia is eventually diagnosed.

SPOT IT: Dementia
What happens: Someone with dementia may have similar symptoms to someone with mild cognitive impairment, the only difference is that they’ll be more noticeable, and could therefore impact more on everyday life.
Why: The move from having mild cognitive impairment to dementia can vary from person to person –some people plateau at quite a mild stage for several years.

Typical symptoms of dementia:
– Regularly struggle to remember recent events
– Find it hard to follow conversations or programs on TV
– Forget the names of everyday objects
– Find that they repeat themselves or lose the thread of what you’re saying
– Get lost or disorientated in familiar places

There is no one test to determine if someone has dementia. Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia based on a careful medical history, a physical examination, laboratory tests, and the characteristic changes in thinking, day-to-day function and behavior associated with each type. Doctors can determine that a person has dementia with a high level of certainty. But it’s harder to determine the exact type of dementia because the symptoms and brain changes of different dementias can overlap. In some cases, a doctor may diagnose “dementia” and not specify a type. If this occurs it may be necessary to see a specialist such as a neurologist or gero-psychologist.

 If you’re worried that your loved may have any of these symptoms, it’s definitely worth visiting their doctor and finding out more. The sooner a dementia diagnosis is made, the easier it is to access the right sort of treatment and support.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply