We all start to forget things as we age. It's just a natural part of getting older- alebit a bit annoying when we can't remember that name on the tip of our tongue. But forgetting more than normal or feeling unusually confused might be a sign that you need to look into the problem a bit further.
If you're concerned about yourself or a loved one, here's how to spot the signs of a memory problem.
What are normal age-related memory problems?
- Occasionally forgetting appointments, or forgetting names and then remembering them later.
- Making the odd mistake when managing household bills, or forgetting to pay a bill on time.
- Being slow or unwilling to grapple with new technology, such as mobile phones or computers.
- Getting the date wrong, but remembering it later.
- Sometimes struggling to find the right word when speaking.
- Misplacing things from time to time, but finding them eventually.
- Finding it difficult to manage work, family and social obligations.
- Developing strict routines and habits and becoming a bit irritable when they're disrupted.
These types of symptoms are normal and not always cause for worry. It's just if things get worse or other symptoms develop that you may need to visit your GP.
What might cause a memory problem?
Depending on the cause, memory loss might be just temporary or a bit longer lasting. It can happen suddenly or get progressively worse over time. It may affect short-term memory (things that happened recently), long-term memory (things that happened a long time ago), or both.
Memory loss might be caused by any of these things.
- Stress, depression and anxiety: these conditions can commonly cause memory problems. Memory loss might be made worse by poor concentration, or a person's lack of interest in what is going on around them.
- Tiredness: sleep is incredibly important not just for feeling physically healthy but for your mind too. Without sleep the brain is slower and more sluggish, and your memory can be impaired.
- A stroke, or series of strokes, may affect your brain power
- Head injury, for example during a fall or a car accident, which has damaged your brain. A head injury might result in sudden memory loss, where people may not be able to remember things immediately before or after the incident took place.
- Dementia: memory loss and the decline of your usual mental ability can be symptoms of conditions such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson's. Dementia is one of the most common reasons for memory loss in older people.
What are the signs of dementia?
Dementia refers to a group of symptoms to do with your recognition, memory, language and planning, which start to deteriorate over time.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer's, although there are several different types. Dementia is a progressive condition, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse over time. This can make it difficult to spot what’s happening, or to know when to seek help.
Each person will experience dementia in a different way as will the rate at which their memory deteroriates. But dementia usually affects people’s memories of recent events, rather than events that happened long ago.
- Memory loss impacting on day-to-day life so completely forgetting key dates, such as appointments or a close relative’s birthday, asking for things over and over again, increasingly relying on memory aids or a family member's support, forgetting what happened earlier in the day or getting lost.
- Difficulties concentrating: Problems following conversations or TV programmes.
- Trouble planning and organisational difficulties so struggling to follow a plan or work with numbers, for example following a recipe or paying a bill and struggling to complete familiar tasks, such as driving to the shops.
- Losing track of time or place: Forgetting where they are, or how they got there and difficulty understanding dates, seasons or time.
- Vision and visual problems: Difficulties judging distance, colour or contrast and troubles with reading.
- Problems with speaking or writing: beginning to have trouble following or joining a conversation, struggling with vocabulary, such as finding the right word and forgetting the names of family and friends, or of everyday objects.
- Losing things and being unable to retrace where they left them as well as accusing others of moving or taking items.
- Increasingly poor judgement: especially around money, for example signing up to a door-to-door sales pitch, and forgetting to pay pills. Also paying less attention to personal grooming and hygiene.
- Withdrawing from social activities and forgetting how to complete a favourite hobby.
- Changes in behaviour and personality such as confusion or paranoia, loss of motivation, mood changes, becoming easily upset and becoming aggressive.
If you believe that someone you love is exhibiting any of these stores, you should encourage him or her to visit their GP.
What can I do?
Many people with dementia are unaware of their memory loss or find it difficult to admit there's a problem. They might feel embarrassed and feel reluctant to visit a GP. But it's so important to get things checked out as the doctor will be able to give the help they need, and it could be something easily-treatable.
Although it might seem deceitful, if the person you are helping is resistant, it might help to make an appointment under the pretext of another smaller problem. The most important thing is to get them there, get a diagnosis that is timely and can help to make plans and get advice and support.
If fear is your biggest stumbling block, try to think of the bigger picture and remember that not all memory problems are caused by dementia. A timely diagnosis is the only way you'll know for sure and allow you to make plans and decisions about the future.
Many of the common signs of dementia could be caused by other factors. For example, losing concentration or withdrawing from people could be a sign of depression and being confused could be a side effect of taking medication. But if you have any concerns at all, the best thing to do really is to see a GP.
You can find out what to expect for a doctor's dementia diagnosis here.
Advice from Which? You can read more about dealing with memory problems here.
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