We all forget things from time to time, this isn’t necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. But if you are worried about your memory it’s important to see your GP to put your mind at rest or get a clear diagnosis. Here we explore the differences between general memory lapses and possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
If you feel your memory isn’t as good as it used to be and you’re worried you may have Alzheimer’s disease, it’s important to seek help and visit your GP, as soon as possible. There are other possible causes of memory loss, so your GP may be able to rule out Alzheimer’s disease after screening you for other possible issues.
It’s certainly important to get a clear diagnosis of what is causing your memory problems, so that you receive the appropriate treatment. It’s crucial to understand that the term ‘dementia’ is not a specific diagnosis. ‘Cognitive impairment occurs when a person has trouble remembering things, learning new skills, concentrating or making decisions,’ says Emer MacSweeney, CEO and Medical Director from Re:Cognition Health. ‘This can affect memory, planning, calculation ability and other higher executive functions. Cognitive function refers to all of the higher mental activities we do automatically, without thinking.
‘Dementia is just a symptom, just the same a “headache”, is a symptom,’ adds Emer. ‘Lots of different things can cause headaches, including a migraine, a tension headache, a brain tumour or a head injury. Similarly, lots of different things can cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common causes, as we grow older. It’s really important to understand that dementia is not a medical diagnosis, but just refers to the presence of progressive cognitive impairment, affecting more than one aspect of thinking and which prevents an individual from undertaking their normal activities of daily life. If someone has symptoms of dementia, they need to know what is causing these symptoms. Without a diagnosis of the cause, you don’t know what you’re treating and therefore you don’t know how to treat it.’
Being forgetful doesn’t necessarily mean you have Alzheimer’s disease. There is a clear difference, according to Emer, between being distracted when you’re busy and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. With Alzheimer’s disease, short-term memory is affected. ‘Mild symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include difficulty recalling particularly recent events or being unable to follow a conversation, or difficulties with calculations and financial planning,’ says Emer. ‘A person may struggle to remember specific words or have difficulty finding their way around. When a person has Alzheimer’s disease, recent events or information are lost first. Whereas past events are easier to recall.’
Other possible signs of mild Alzheimer’s disease could be struggling to follow a storyline in a book or film. ‘A sign of Alzheimer’s disease may be reading something and not being able to remember the first part of it when you get towards the end,’ says Emer. ‘Or not being able to follow a conversation; sometimes people have difficulty remembering specific words.’
However, being occasionally forgetful may not be anything to worry about (though it is important to see your GP, if you are concerned). ‘There’s a difference between not being able to remember something, as opposed to not really concentrating,’ Emer says. ‘An example of not concentrating – which we all do – is going upstairs and walking into a room and not remembering the reason for going into the room. This occurs because we’re not concentrating and thinking about something else.
‘A person with Alzheimer’s disease won’t remember later what they were going to do,’ adds Emer.
There is a difference between losing concentration during a conversation and not being able to follow the conversation at all. ‘For example when listening to a conversation, not being able to follow the train of thought or the argument,’ says Emer. ‘This may be because you weren’t concentrating or listening. That’s normal. An individual with Alzheimer’s disease may not be able to follow the conversation as they cannot retain the information in order to process what they have heard, to understand and follow the conversation.’
‘A person who doesn’t have Alzheimer’s disease who forgets a past event, will usually be able to recall the event, when prompted, by a few cues. This is quite normal. However, an individual with Alzheimer’s disease will not recall the event at all. Despite giving prompts the memory has just gone,’ adds Emer.
A person with mild signs of Alzheimer’s disease may be very repetitive and frequently ask the same questions. We all repeat things – it’s not uncommon to ask someone if you’ve already told them something, when you think you might have told someone else. ‘Somebody with Alzheimer’s disease may repeat exactly the same statement, to the same person, several times within a very short period of time without any awareness,’ says Emer.