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Common conditions

Memory loss or dementia: how to tell the difference

As we age, our focus, ability to retain new information and memory may diminish, but dementia goes much further. Here’s what you need to know.

Health Agenda
February 2017

While memory loss is one of the main symptoms of dementia, forgetting where you left the car keys is no cause for alarm, Alzheimer’s Australia advises.

The memory loss associated with dementia isn’t just forgetting where your keys are, it may be forgetting what they’re for. It’s persistent and progressive, rather than occasional, and it can affect your ability to work or perform familiar tasks. This level of impairment isn’t a normal part of ageing.

Normal ageing vs dementia

These examples illustrate the difference between typical age-related memory loss and dementia:

  • Events – an older person’s recollection may be vague on detail but someone with dementia forgets all or part of the event.
  • Words or names of things – an older person may sometimes forget a name or have the word on the tip of their tongue, while someone with dementia progressively forgets more words.
  • Written or verbal directions – an older person can follow directions but someone with dementia is increasingly unable to do this.
  • Stories in books, movies or on TV – an older person can follow the plot and someone with dementia progressively loses this ability.
  • Stored knowledge – although recall may be slower with advancing years, information is still retained, but someone with dementia loses historical or political information over time.
  • Everyday skills such as cooking – in normal ageing people retain their abilities, while someone with dementia becomes progressively more unable to perform everyday tasks.

Getting a diagnosis

There are other conditions that can produce similar symptoms to dementia. These include vitamin and hormone deficiencies, depression, medication clashes, infections and brain tumours. So it’s important to see a doctor to establish the underlying cause of the symptoms.

If it is dementia there’s currently no prevention or cure, but in some cases medication can provide relief from symptoms.

Where to get help

Dementia symptoms can be a distressing experience for those living with the condition and the people close to them. Alzheimer's Australia provides a range of services to support people with any type of dementia, their families and carers. You can also call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

To learn how to reduce your risk of dementia take a look at the Your Brain Matters program.

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