When is memory loss more than just forgetfulness?

Those ‘senior moments’ may creep up on you as you 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 you?

You keep forgetting where you’ve placed your keys, you walk around the supermarket trying to remember the one thing you went in there to get, or you walk upstairs…then rack your brain trying to remember why you 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:
- You occasionally (note occasionally!) forget where you left keys or glasses
- You sometimes forget an appointment
- You occasionally forget the details of a conversation (although you will remember the conversation itself)
- You have ‘tip of the tongue’ moments with words

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 does exactly what it says on the tin – you struggle 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 your health more generally before assuming you have dementia.

Typical symptoms:
- You struggle to remember things on a daily basis
- You have memory loss accompanied by other symptoms such as tiredness, depression or weight loss.
- Your lifestyle choices – for example alcohol or drugs – are affecting your 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 you’ll go on to develop dementia it’s really important to remember that this certainly isn’t inevitable.

Typical symptoms:
- You frequently lose or misplace things
- You regularly forget conversations, appointments or events
- You have difficulty remembering the names of people you’ve just met
- You manage 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 you 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 programmes on TV
- Forget the names of everyday objects
- Find that you repeat yourself or lose the thread of what you’re saying
- Get lost or disorientated in familiar places
- For more information on signs of dementia, click here.

But: If you’re worried about any of these symptoms, it’s definitely worth visiting your GP and finding out more. The sooner a dementia diagnosis is made, the easier it is to access the right sort of treatment and support.