There is a difference between memory loss as a part of normal ageing and as a symptom of dementia.

Memory loss

One of the main symptoms of dementia is memory loss.

We all forget things from time to time, but the loss of memory with dementia is very different. It is persistent and progressive, not just occasional. It may affect the ability to continue to work or carry out familiar tasks. It may mean having difficulty finding the way home. Eventually it may mean forgetting how to dress or how to bathe.

An example of normal forgetfulness is walking into the kitchen and forgetting what you went in there for, or misplacing the car keys. A person with dementia however, may lose the car keys and then forget what they are used for.

Key points about normal forgetfulness:

  • As we get older, the most common change that we complain about is memory change. Knowledge of how memory changes as we get older is a lot more positive than in the past. Memory change with healthy ageing certainly doesn’t interfere with everyday life in a dramatic way.
  • Everyone is different and the effect of getting older on memory is different for each person.
  • Recent research describes the effect of getting older on attention processes, on the ability to get new information into storage, on the time it takes to recall things, and “on the tip of the tongue” experiences.
  • Research also suggests that immediate memory and lifetime memory do not change as we get older.

Based on Remembering Well, by Delys Sergeant and Anne Unkenstein.

Distinguishing points between normal memory loss and that of a person with dementia:

DescriptionOlder PersonPerson with Dementia
EventsMemory may sometimes be vagueMay forget part or all of an event
Words or names for things or objectsSometimes may forget.
Words or names are on the ‘tip of the tongue’
Progressively forgets
Written and verbal directionsAble to followIncreasingly unable to follow
Stories on TV, in movies or booksAble to follow Progressively loses ability to follow
Stored knowledgeAlthough recall may be slower, information is essentially retainedOver time loses known information such as historical or political information
Everyday skills such as dressing and cookingRetains ability, unless physically impairedProgressively loses capacity to perform tasks