14.06.2024

Is memory loss usual for your age or is it a sign of DEMENTIA?

Memory slips, mixing up words and struggling to focus can be a normal part of ageing. But they can also be a sign of dementia — the memory-robbing condition plaguing nearly 1million Brits and 7million Americans.

As well as memory loss, dementia can also affect the way a person speaks, thinks, feels and behaves.

MailOnline spoke to experts from Dementia UK and the Society to set out how to tell symptoms of the condition apart from regular signs of ageing.

Memory slips, mixing up words and struggling to focus can be a normal part of ageing

Memory slips, mixing up words and struggling to focus can be a normal part of ageing

But they can also be a sign of dementia — the memory-robbing condition plaguing nearly 1million Brits and 7million Americans

But they can also be a sign of dementia — the memory-robbing condition plaguing nearly 1million Brits and 7million Americans

Memory

Memory slips are a nuisance that affects everyone at some point.

But the frequency and severity of them are key signs of whether they could be a symptom of dementia, experts say.

Common signs of ageing include forgetting something you were told a while ago, misplacing objects like your mobile phone from time to time or taking longer to work out new tasks, such as how to set up and use a new appliance.

But possible signs of dementia include ‘getting lost in their own home’ or ‘going out in very familiar places and getting lost again’, Paul Edwards, director of clinical services at Dementia UK, told MailOnline.

‘And that’s usually something very different from how the person was before,’ he added, ‘it’s something very different and very marked’.

Jaina Engineer, knowledge services manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, told MailOnline: ‘Problems with memory or thinking can be an early sign of dementia. However, as life gets busier, it can also just be a sign of feeling stressed or getting older.

‘Lots of us can start to forget details we were told a while ago. But a person with dementia will often forget things that they were just told,’ she said.

‘They might ask the same question again and again, like «are the doors locked?» or «what time are we leaving?».

They could also include putting objects in unusual places too.

Ms Engineer added: ‘For someone with dementia, familiar tasks they’ve done all their lives – like getting dressed or flicking through TV channels to find their favourite soap — may start to get difficult to do.

‘They may also lose the ability to carry out tasks in the proper order, like trying to cook pasta on the stove before putting the water in.’

For a doctor to diagnose someone with dementia, their memory loss must have become more frequent and have a significant impact on daily life, she noted.

‘When we talk to families, they tend to notice a change in things for about six months, usually, before they go to the GP,’ Mr Edwards said.

‘And it doesn’t seem to go away, and it seems to get a little bit worse.’

Language 

It’s not uncommon to struggle to find the right words to say or to have trouble keeping up with conversations.

‘There may be times during a conversation where you get distracted or start zoning out — while it might leave you bit red-faced, it’s not necessarily a sign that anything’s wrong,’ Ms Engineer said.

But if you consistently forget the names of common objects, frequently struggle to find the right word or quickly lose track of what someone is saying, these could be signs of dementia, she warned.

‘Where somebody would have been listening and engaging and trying to make sense, sometimes that ability disappears or gets progressively worse over time,’ Mr Edwards said.

He added: ‘Word finding difficulties is quite a strong characteristic in some people with dementia.

‘You will find people describing a situation or an object or an animal or something like that with a different word.’

Mood and behaviour 

No one expects to feel positive all the time.

But if someone is starting to become easily irritable or experiences extreme highs and lows, these could be signs of dementia Ms Engineer and Mr Edwards warned.

Ms Engineer said: ‘The symptoms of dementia can cause a person to become more withdrawn from work, friends or family.

‘Dementia makes interacting socially with other people much more difficult and tiring, and it can also hit a person’s confidence hard.’

As it becomes more difficult to follow conversations, ‘especially in noisy environments,’ it can be tempting for those with dementia to stay home, she added.

Unusual behaviour that occurs out of context, for instance among those who were previously shy losing this filter, or leaving the house late at night in the cold without grabbing their coat and shoes, are also possible signs, Mr Edwards told MailOnline.

People can often feel frustrated with themselves and at others ‘because it’s much harder to access the same world as other people,’ he added.

‘So we see people getting angry and frustrated and agitated with not being able to function in the way that they used to be able to do.’

Ms Engineer noted that there are ‘many reasons’ why mood changes occur that are unrelated to dementia and urged people with these symptoms to see their GP.

Vision 

Jaina Engineer, said: ‘It’s totally normal for your eyesight not to be as sharp as it was when you were younger – you might need more light to read things properly or rely on your glasses more.’

But those with dementia can face trouble processing and distinguishing different colours, causing them to misinterpret patterns and reflections.

‘This is because your eyes send messages to your brain so it can help it understand what it is seeing, but dementia causes these messages from the eyes to the brain to become distorted,’ she said.

Mr Edwards said: ‘People can often have difficulties with things like really shiny floors, where there’s a bit of a glare, and there’s a bit of reflective image that can sometimes look like water.

‘Very often for people with dementia, when they sit down and have a meal, they may not see the whole thing, but only up to one half of the plate.’

Certain types of dementia can even occasionally cause hallucinations or seeing, hearing or smelling things that aren’t there.

‘This is most common in people living with dementia with Lewy bodies, a less common type of dementia. However, other types of dementia may also cause hallucinations in their later stages,’ Ms Engineer said.

Focus and decision making 

We’re all prone to losing track of time on occasion, especially when busy or stressed.

Occasionally making decisions without fully thinking them through, or finding it harder to do several tasks at once, are common signs of ageing.

But finding yourself getting lost in a familiar place or being unable to find your way home, may indicate possible signs of dementia.

‘Sometimes that ability of people with dementia can change, so people’s ability to understand and make a judgement about something may well be more limited,’ Mr Edwards said.

Ms Engineer added: ‘If a person finds that they’re making a lot of decisions without thinking them through – either because they can’t process information like they used to or because their personality seems to have rapidly changed a lot – it could be a sign that they need to see their doctor to get checked out.

‘A decline in being able to make informed, careful decisions can have really serious consequences for the person and those around them, especially when it comes to money or personal safety.’

WHAT IS DEMENTIA?

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders

A GLOBAL CONCERN

Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour.

There are many types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.

Some people may have a combination of different types of dementia.

Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience dementia in their own unique way.

Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.

HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?

The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 900,000 people living with dementia in the UK today. This is projected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting between 50 and 75 per cent of those diagnosed.

In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.

As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.

Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.

IS THERE A CURE?

Currently there is no cure for dementia.

But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted, the more effective treatments can be.

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