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The difference between memory loss and dementia

Occasional memory slips are common during our day-to-day lives. Misplacing keys or forgetting a name may be annoying, but these things happen. However, the fear of loss of cognitive ability, particularly due to the onset of age-related diseases such as dementia, can make you question these mistakes.

So, how do you know if forgetfulness is a normal part of getting older, the start of something more serious, or just a temporary phase that will pass? It could even be regular forgetfulness that happens to everyone, no matter their age. 

Forgetting things vs memory loss

Neurologist Richard Restak, a clinical professor at George Washington University, offers an insight into recognising this difference in his book How to Prevent Dementia: An Expert’s Guide to Long-Term Brain Health. He emphasises that stress, a prevalent factor throughout our lives, can sometimes temporarily fog memory, causing minor forgetfulness. 

“There are examples of people coming out of shopping malls and being unable to remember where they parked the car. Well, that’s just normal forgetting,” says Prof. Restak.

Memory is frequently linked to paying attention rather than cognitive issues. Using Prof. Restak’s mall comparison, if your mind is occupied with something more captivating than mundane parking coordinates upon arrival, you might overlook the seemingly unimportant parking zone, and consequently fail to form a memory of it. It’s challenging to pay attention to things that don’t capture your interest.

However, while forgetting minor details is common, significant memory gaps or confusion about important aspects of daily life may signal underlying issues.

“A more worrying version of the story would be, if you come out of the mall and you can’t remember, ‘Did I drive here, did I take a bus or did somebody drop me off?’” says Prof. Restak.

Can stress cause forgetfulness?

Stress hormones can interfere with the brain’s processes, cause memory lapses, and inhibit the way you form and retrieve memories. Some studies show that stressful life events can cause an accelerated cognitive decline in older adults.

Some stress in life is unavoidable. However, you can make some situations less stressful. For example, if you’re panicking because you’re getting older and can’t name the actor in a film you’re watching, stop and take a breath. Try to divert this mental energy into positive action and look into new ways to manage the stress in your life. “Try to decrease stress, and cognitive function will improve,” Prof. Restak says.

If you experience a dramatic memory lapse, or cognitive changes that aren’t normal for you, the usual investigative pathway would be a visit to a memory clinic, via GP referral.

What’s the difference between forgetfulness and dementia?

Forgetfulness is a normal part of ageing, while dementia is a severe and persistent memory loss that progressively worsens over time. It can also cause other cognitive impairments, such as difficulty speaking and completing familiar tasks.

Linda Clare, a psychology professor specialising in ageing and dementia at the University of Exeter, underscores the importance of recognising abnormal memory lapses. Such instances, unlike minor forgetfulness, warrant medical attention to rule out potential dementia or related conditions.

Prof. Clare shares an incident where a man got into the car and couldn’t recall what the controls were for. “It’s those crunch moments that send you off to the doctor.” However, it is sometimes difficult to identify specific signs of dementia, as other health issues such as UTIs, depression, anxiety, and hormone imbalances can also cause sudden lapses in memory. It’s important that these medical conditions are ruled out first by a doctor.

“We’re trying to encourage people, if they do notice a change in functioning, to go to the doctor,” says Prof. Clare.

Ways to help prevent cognitive decline

Experts advocate prioritising self-care. If you can, make some lifestyle changes to reduce stress and keep yourself mentally stimulated.

It’s been noted that having a mentally demanding job can be beneficial because it keeps the brain agile and strong and makes a dementia diagnosis less likely. “Whatever a person can do to stimulate their mental functioning is a good thing,” says Prof. Clare. “We think complex mental activities are protective.”

Engaging in challenging mental activities, such as learning new skills or languages, solving puzzles, or reading novels, stimulates brain networks and fosters cognitive flexibility. 

While having a well-exercised brain will not necessarily prevent dementia, it can keep you functional for longer if you do get the disease.

Better sleep equals better cognitive function

Quality sleep, particularly naps, plays a vital role in memory consolidation and cognitive function. 

If you haven’t slept well, your ability to learn new things could drop by up to 40 per cent as the lack of sleep affects a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is key for storing new information and memories. Taking short daytime naps can also be beneficial, as during a nap the activity in the hippocampus mirrors the pattern observed when you first learnt the information, in a phenomenon known as a neural replay.

“Making changes to benefit your health, at any stage, has an impact,” says Prof. Clare. “Even if you start exercising when you retire, it will still have a benefit.”

Do you worry when you forget something? What are your favourite challenging mental activities to do to keep your mind sharp? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Memory – what can you do to keep yours functioning?

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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