Memory loss and ageing: should I be worried?

Head of Research and Clinical Development at Bupa UK
15 August 2016
An image of an older couple looking at a tablet device

If you have friends or relatives who are getting older, you may be concerned about their memory. It could be that you’ve started noticing memory difficulties, or that it’s something you’re looking out for more. But when should you worry about a loved one’s memory problems? And how do you know if they’re just part of getting older, or something more serious?

Memory loss and ageing

As we get older, our memory naturally starts to get a little worse. We may become slower to learn new information and recall old information. However, this age-related memory loss doesn’t necessarily have a huge impact on someone’s life, provided they’re given enough time to learn and remember things.

Sometimes age-related memory loss can be confused with dementia. But dementia is actually something quite different.

Memory loss and dementia

Rather than one specific condition, the term ‘dementia’ refers to a set of symptoms. This includes memory difficulties, but also involves problems with thinking, reasoning, learning, language, and difficulties with daily activities. There are several different conditions that cause dementia. The most common ones are Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia.

For Alzheimer’s disease (which causes around half of all cases of dementia), the characteristic symptom is memory loss. In the early stages of the disease, memory loss is often the first thing that’s noticeable, affecting recent and short-term memories. For example, someone may recall details about their life from many years ago, but not remember what they had for lunch.

In vascular dementia (which causes around a quarter of all cases), memory loss is also typical in the earlier stages, though it may not be the symptom that’s noticed first.

Dementia is progressive, meaning the symptoms get worse over time. Memory loss will become more noticeable, and will start to affect longer-term memories as the condition progresses.

Why do they get mixed up?

There are a number of reasons why age-related memory loss may be mistaken for dementia, and vice versa.

The main reason is probably because the chances of getting dementia increase the older we get. Between ages 65 and 69, around three in 200 people have it. This rises to around 12 in 200 at ages 75–79, and 40 in 200 at ages 85–89.

The fact that dementia-related memory loss is often mild at first makes it easy to dismiss as just being age-related. There may also be an element of denial. The person and their relatives may not want to believe that there is a serious problem, preferring to blame any memory problems on simply getting older.

Should I be worried?

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s memory problems, there are things you can look out for to help you decide what to do next.

First of all, are there patterns in the memory problems? If they’re taking longer to remember things, but getting there in the end, this probably isn’t anything to worry about. However, other memory difficulties may be more of a concern, such as:

  • not recalling things that happened recently
  • forgetting conversations or repeating questions
  • losing or misplacing belongings

You should also look out for other early signs of dementia, such as:

  • changes in behaviour or personality
  • difficulty speaking and understanding
  • becoming easily confused
  • struggling with daily tasks like driving, cooking or housework

It could also be a concern if your loved one is not as worried about their memory problems as you are; this is fairly common with dementia. Someone experiencing natural age-related memory loss is more likely to be aware of it, and frustrated by it.

If you’re worried about a loved one’s memory problems, and you think it could be the early signs of dementia, try and encourage them to visit their GP. They’ll be able to find out a little more, and can refer them to a specialist for assessment if necessary.

This will not be an easy conversation to have, especially if your loved one does not recognise their memory difficulties, or does not see them as a big problem. Alzheimer’s Society has some helpful advice about how to approach this discussion.

If you’re worried about dementia yourself, there are steps you can take to stay healthy and reduce the factors that can contribute to dementia. These include watching your diet and looking after your heart and mind. For more detail, read our information on reducing your risk of dementia.


Paul Edwards
Head of Research and Clinical Development at Bupa UK

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