Memory Loss & the Early Signs of Alzheimer's

Worried about memory loss?

Did you know?

If Alzheimer’s disease can be identified earlier, there is the potential to treat it earlier.

Memory Loss & the Early Signs of Alzheimer's

Are you worried about memory loss affecting you, a friend or a relative?

A certain degree of forgetfulness can be part of the normal aging process. Memory loss can also happen at any age and doesn't necessarily mean that you or someone you know has a medical problem.

Stress, depression and heavy drinking1 can all contribute to memory loss as can a number of other medical conditions.

However, significant memory loss could be a sign of early Alzheimer’s disease - known as prodromal Alzheimer's disease.

Prodromal Alzheimer’s disease is a condition in which a person's memory loss is worse than can be expected from the normal aging process alone, even though their ability to get on with daily activities is not affected to such an extent that they would be diagnosed with dementia.

It is therefore extremely important that medical attention is sought if you or someone you care about is experiencing significant memory loss.

In a 14 year trial conducted in France, results showed that measureable symptoms of Alzheimer's disease occurred 12 years before the clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer's2. In the last 2-3 years of the trial there were key differences in participant's ability to carry out everyday activities such as telephone use, transportation, ability to take their medications and domestic finances.

The information from this study and others like it is very important for healthcare professionals as it means there could be an opportunity to use simple tests to monitor the cognitive health of older people under their care.

Memory loss and aging

Everyday living relies on using our memory – for everything from remembering people, places, conversations, and experiences to conducting our everyday routines and domestic arrangements, as well as participating in family, social and work activities.

Forgetfulness can happen at any age, but as we get older we often become more worried about it. However as the years advance, it’s normal to notice a gradual decline in memory that can cause us to become slightly forgetful and perhaps confused at times.

Early Alzheimer's Symptoms - Don't Forget!Examples of normal memory loss include:

  • Forgetting names and faces
  • Misplacing items
  • Sudden mind blanks

Just as every person is unique, the way that each person experiences memory problems – and the frustration that they and their family and friends face – will be unique to them. Personality, general health and social situations are all important factors in determining the impact of memory loss.

Causes of memory loss

When there is a progressive decline in memory and other brain functions, this can eventually lead to dementia. However it is important not to jump to conclusions because a wide variety of medical conditions can be associated with memory loss3.

Memory loss can be caused by the following1

Mental health problems These include depression and anxiety, as well as more severe problems. When someone becomes very depressed, they may find thinking and concentrating difficult.
Stress Severe stress over a long period of time can cause memory loss that may be permanent.
Menopause Hormones may play a part. Women going through the menopause are known to face memory problems as well as mood swings, lack of concentration and irritability.
Head injury If you have a head injury, it may damage areas of the brain involved in memory. Although it is sometimes said that people with memory impairment don't remember because of the emotional shock, it is usually a physical cause in the majority of cases.
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) This is a treatment for depression that is usually offered only when other methods have failed. There is division in the efficacy and side effect profile of this treatment.
Medical reasons Other physical problems that can affect memory include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, viral infections, vitamin deficiency, liver disease, thyroid problems, stroke, surgery, and blood disorders such as anemia.
Drugs and alcohol Drinking too much leads to memory problems. Heavy drinking can result in a specific form of dementia known as Korsakoff's syndrome. Certain sorts of prescription or street drugs can also affect your memory.

The most common cause of significant memory loss and progression to dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and, although it is characteristically a disease of old age, it can begin earlier. Mild memory loss can precede serious cognitive dysfunction by many years. In one study the first decline in cognitive performances appeared as early as 12 years before subjects could be clinically-diagnosed with dementia2.

Of people with mild cognitive impairment, about 15% will progress to dementia each year; 90% of this will be due to Alzheimer’s disease.4

It is important to realize that memory loss in aging is not necessarily inevitable; the brain is like a muscle in your body in that you have to use it to keep it fit. Lifestyle plays a very important role in the health of your body and mind, and exercise is fundamental to a healthy lifestyle.

For practical tips and exercises to help improve your memory see here.

Memory loss – what you can do to help yourself

Healthy living, with good control of cardiovascular risk factors, especially blood pressure, is important.

Lifestyle choices may protect people with mild forms of age-related memory loss from future decline.

Strategies that may protect brain health5

Stress reduction Prepare ahead, balance work and leisure, set realistic expectations and take relaxation breaks at regular intervals.
Mental activity Do crosswords and puzzles, read or challenge yourself intellectually.
Healthy brain diet Drink six glasses of water a day; eat low fat foods and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Avoid fried foods and take the antioxidant vitamins E and C.
Exercise Regular physical exercise, including an adequate aerobic workout. Sports and activities with a low risk for head injuries.
Avoidance Try to avoid tobacco and excessive amounts of alcohol.
Contact Remain in contact with people and maintain meaningful activities.

When is memory loss something to be worried about?

As we get older, mild memory loss does not usually have a significant impact on daily life. However, if memory loss gradually gets worse or starts to have a significant effect on daily life, then it is time to seek medical advice.

In a recent survey6 in the US and four European countries, over 85% of the respondents said that if they were exhibiting confusion and memory loss, they would want to see a doctor to determine if Alzheimer’s disease was the cause. An even higher proportion (around 94%) would want the same if a family member was exhibiting symptoms.

Learn more about Early Alzheimer Symptoms »