Forgetfulness and memory loss

Alzheimer’s man listening

By Alzheimers Auckland

Getting older can be associated with becoming forgetful, like mislaying car keys and not remembering where they are.

It’s normal to forget things now and then and to become more forgetful as we age.

However, if you’re ever concerned that you or someone else you know might be struggling with their memory, it’s a good idea to consider the differences between memory loss and forgetfulness so you can decide whether there should be a diagnosis into a deeper issue or not.

For people living with dementia, memory loss is a sad and sometimes scary reality – and there are clear differences between that and forgetfulness. But, how much forgetfulness is too much before it becomes a symptom of something more serious?

Being forgetful can happen to all of us, at any time in our lives and memory loss or memory distortion can take place at any age.

Some memory loss can become more regular with age but unless it’s incredibly frequent, memory loss won’t necessarily mean someone has dementia.

Seven types of forgetfulness

According to a study by Harvard Medical School*, there are seven types of forgetfulness that are normal and expected. These are;

  • Transience – the tendency to forget facts or events over time
  • Absentmindedness – resulting from not paying enough attention or forgetting to do things at a certain time
  • Blocking – when someone asks you a question and the answer is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite think of it
  • Misattribution – when you remember something accurately in part but misattribute some detail
  • Suggestibility – the vulnerability of your memory to the power of suggestion
  • Bias – when your personal beliefs, experiences, knowledge and even mood alter your memory
  • Persistence – when the memories of traumatic events, negative feelings, and ongoing fears can create memory problems and or negative distortions of reality.

Healthy people can experience all of these at any age, and these types of forgetfulness are not considered indicators of Alzheimer’s or other memory-impairing conditions.


Memory Loss

Memory loss can be a huge part of living with dementia.

The changes in memory experienced by people with dementia can affect a person’s ability to perform everyday tasks, and can interfere with their everyday lives.

It is very different to forgetfulness; it isn’t just occasional and it gets worse over time.

In its most serious form, it may affect a person’s ability to work and carry out everyday tasks which could eventually include how to dress, bathe, walk or recognise family members.

One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s is memory loss, especially forgetting recently learned information.

Others include forgetting important dates or events; asking for the same information over and over; increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (like reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own.

People with dementia may find completing familiar tasks difficult, like driving to a location they know well, or remembering the rules of a favourite game.

They can also lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time, and have trouble understanding something that isn’t happening immediately, or remembering where they are and how they got there.

It is also common for people with dementia to put things in unusual places, or lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again.

Getting a diagnosis

If you think you or someone you care about may have dementia, it is important to see a GP for an assessment as soon as possible.

This will provide some peace of mind, as well as the opportunity to find out more about the condition, get access to services and support, and the ability to plan for the future.

For some people, there is also medication available that could delay the progression of cognitive problems.

After a complete medical assessment, the GP could decide the symptoms are a result of a treatable condition, or they may confirm some form of dementia.

Alzheimer’s walking group

The assessment is likely to include discussing medical history, talking to family/whānau, undergoing a physical examination, laboratory tests, cognitive testing, brain imaging and a mental health assessment.

If you or your loved one does receive a diagnosis of dementia, there is plenty of support available.

In the Auckland region alone, more than 15,000 people are living with dementia.

Alzheimers Auckland is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to providing dementia support services and inspiring those living with dementia to make the most of life.

They believe that with the right support programmes, improved environments, and connection to community, people affected by dementia can continue to make the most of each moment.

It is one of many local organisations across New Zealand that can help provide support, education, information and related services directly to members of the community who are affected by dementia.

These services may include education to assist with understanding and living with a dementia diagnosis; support for family, friends and whanau coping with the demands of caring; and support groups and day programmes for people affected by dementia.

Editor's note: Views expressed by contributors are not necessarily those of the Office for Seniors

More information

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