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When is forgetfulness something to worry about?

We’ve all had moments where we’ve misplaced the keys, forgotten a word to use in a sentence or struggled to recall information as quickly as we once did and while it can sometimes be worrying, there’s a big difference between common forgetfulness and signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease.

Forgetfulness isn’t always a sign of MCI or Alzheimer’s, but understanding which symptoms are serious is essential in knowing when to speak to a health professional about memory issues.

The body and brain changes with the ageing process and according to Dementia Australia, it can become harder to learn new things and more difficult to remember learned information as we get older. Most people will experience mild forgetfulness at some point; the key is understanding the difference between the odd memory lapse and something more serious.

For example, missing occasional payments or forgetting the day but remembering it later is to be expected as we age – after all, no one’s perfect – and doesn’t typically point towards a serious memory problem.

“If we can’t remember who won the Academy Award two years ago or something like that, that’s not such a problem,” Associate Professor Michael Woodward, Director of Aged Care Research and Memory Clinic at Austin Health, says. “There are some parts of memory that become less efficient as we get on, what we call episodic memory, but by and large, memory is not much affected by ageing alone.”

As well as the common forgetfulness that comes naturally with ageing, memory loss is sometimes triggered by other factors such as excessive alcohol consumption, head injuries, kidney or liver issues and even tumours and blood clots. In these cases, health professionals can usually offer treatments or ways to overcome memory issues.

Likewise, conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and even depression can affect memory, while anti-cholinergic medications such as antihistamines, antipsychotics and antidepressants can also interfere with memory.

In these cases, doctors may be able to switch patients to an alternative medication that treats the issue at hand without affecting a person’s memory.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for people with Alzheimer’s and unlike ‘normal’ memory lapses which are temporary, Alzheimer’s prevents people from retaining information – even when prompted. As memory worsens, levels of cognitive function, language and reasoning also decline.

Common Alzheimer’s symptoms include making poor judgements and decisions, difficulty remembering to pay or organise bills, regularly forgetting the date, time or year, difficulty making conversations and difficulty locating items after they’re misplaced. These signs don’t always point to MCI or Alzheimer’s, but doctors may need to investigate the cause behind the memory loss further.

“The main difference between age-related memory changes and Alzheimer’s is that if you have memory loss that is interfering with your day-to-day life, such as constantly forgetting people we should remember, forgetting what we’re planning to do tomorrow or what we did last week, missing appointments, or forgetting to pick up the grandchildren then you may have Alzheimer’s and I’d certainly be more concerned,” Woodward says.

MCI (usually due to the early stages of Alzheimer’s) is typically characterised by just memory loss and doesn’t include other symptoms, whereas dementia due to Alzheimer’s causes memory loss and an inability to complete day-to-day activities. This could be struggling to work out the button to press on a microwave or which clothes to wear in specific weather conditions. It can also cause changes to mood and personality and issues with speech and writing.

Health professionals can test memory through a variety of assessments and evaluate the degree of memory loss and monitor how it’s progressing. These tests can provide a legitimate diagnosis and while there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, it means people and their families can better prepare for the future and put measures in place to delay cognitive decline.

“If Alzheimer’s is diagnosed you can set your affairs in order, you can be more diligent about dementia risk reduction strategies,” Woodward explains. “If you’re diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease, you should certainly be considering approaches such as Souvenaid®.”

Souvenaid® is a medical nutrition drink that is clinically proven to nutritionally support memory loss in people diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease when taken daily, as part of their daily diet.1-3 Souvenaid® contains a unique combination of nutrients known as Fortasyn Connect™, which helps support the growth of brain connections known as synapses.

A diet rich in antioxidants, B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to better brain health, while exercise and brain training may also slow the worsening of symptoms. Other medications may also be prescribed, but a doctor can discuss which options are best.

Do you know someone who’s been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease?

Content created in consultation with dementia expert Associate Professor Michael Woodward.

  1. Soininen H et al. Lancet Neurol 2017; 16: 965–975.
  2. Scheltens P et al. Alzheimers Dement 2010; 6: 1–10.e1.
  3. Scheltens P et al. J Alzheimers Dis 2012; 31:225–236.