Age-related memory loss or dementia?

Aileen Waton
Director of Risk and Governance, Care Services, at Bupa UK
09 November 2021
Next review due November 2024

If you have an older partner, relative or friend, there may be times when you wonder about their memory. It could be that they seem to be more forgetful than they used to. But how do you know if it’s age-related memory loss or something more serious like dementia? Here I explain.

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Memory loss and forgetfulness in older age

As we get older, our memory starts to get a little worse. It may take us longer to learn and recall information. This normal age-related memory loss doesn’t cause people too much bother if they’re given enough time to learn and remember things.

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

What are the main causes of dementia?

There are several different types of dementia. The term ‘dementia’ refers to a set of symptoms. This includes problems with memory, thinking, reasoning, learning, language, and daily activities.

There are many different conditions that cause dementia. The most common ones are Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and frontotemporal dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease causes between half and three-quarters of all cases of dementia. Memory loss is the main symptom for Alzheimer’s. It’s often the first thing that’s noticeable. It usually affects short-term or recent memory in the early stages. For example, the person may recall details about their life from many years ago. But, they won’t remember what they had for lunch.

Vascular dementia causes around one in five cases of dementia. With this type of dementia memory loss is also typical in the earlier stages. Yet, 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. It will also start to affect longer-term memories as the condition progresses.

Why is age-related memory loss mistaken for dementia?

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

The chances of getting dementia increase the older we get. Estimates suggest that:

  • from ages 65 – 69, around three in 200 people have dementia
  • from ages 75 – 79, this rises to around 12 in every 200 people
  • by ages 85–89, about 40 in every 200 people have dementia

Dementia-related memory loss is often mild at first. This makes it easy to dismiss as just being age-related. There may also be an element of denial. For example, the person and their relatives may not want to believe that there is a serious problem. Instead, they may prefer to blame any memory problems on simply getting older.

Is it normal memory loss or early dementia?

Are you worried about a loved one’s memory problems? There are things you can look out for to help you decide what to do next.

First check if there are 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. 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 housework1

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 be frustrated by it.

What should I do if I think someone has early dementia?

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

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

What can I do to prevent dementia?

If you’re worried about dementia yourself, there are steps you can take to stay healthy. You can also reduce the factors that can contribute to dementia. These include watching your diet and looking after your heart and mind. Make sure you read the right information about reducing your risk of dementia too.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Aileen Waton
Aileen Waton (she/her)
Director of Risk and Governance, Care Services, at Bupa UK

    • Assessment of memory deficit - Summary. BMJ Best Practice., updated March 2021
    • Psychiatry. Oxford Handbook of Geriatric Medicine (online, 3rd ed). Oxford Medicine Online., published 2018
    • Dementia. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., revised May 2021
    • Dementia. The MSD Manuals., last reviewed March 2021
    • Dementia. Patient., last edited June 2019
    • Alzheimer's dementia. BMJ Best Practice., updated July 2021
    • Vascular dementia. BMJ Best Practice., updated August 2021
    • Assessment of memory deficit - Differential diagnosis., updated March 2021

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