Memory Loss: Is It Ageing or Alzheimer's Disease?

Memory Loss: Is It Ageing or Alzheimer's Disease?

Everyone can be forgetful from time to time - forgetting birthdays, your passwords, where you left your keys - but when it starts to affect your daily life, it could be a sign that something is wrong.
As part of World Alzheimer’s Month, we’ve created this guide to help you identify what is normal and what could possibly be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, the name of a group of symptoms associated with the decline of brain function, affecting your memory and thinking ability.
It is the most common type of dementia in the UK and the cause is generally not fully understood.
There are, however, multiple risk factors which are thought to increase your chance of developing the condition, including:

  • Getting older
  • Family history
  • Untreated depression (although depression can be one of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s)
  • Having an unhealthy lifestyle (excessive drinking or smoking, eating too much processed foods or not exercising enough)
  • Having a condition associated with cardiovascular disease


What is the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?

Many use the terms ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ and ‘dementia’ interchangeably, but there is a difference. 
Dementia does not refer to one specific disease; rather, it’s a general term for symptoms like decline in memory, reasoning or thinking skills.
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease mostly overlap with other types of dementia, but there are some differences.
Other forms will present certain symptoms only associated with that form of dementia, as in the case of frontotemporal dementia, where behavioural changes are more common in the earlier stages as opposed to memory loss.

Is it a normal sign of ageing or a symptom of Alzheimer’s?

Listed below are some examples of what is a normal, perhaps age-related change, compared to what could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.
Age-related changes:

  • You have made a bad decision once in a while
  • You have missed a monthly payment
  • You have forgotten what day it is, but soon recall it
  • You sometimes forget which word to use
  • You lose things from time to time

Possible signs of Alzheimer’s:

  • You have continually poor judgement and decision-making
  • You have an inability to manage a budget
  • You lose track of the date or season
  • You find it difficult to have a conversation
  • You frequently misplace things and are unable to retrace the steps to find them



Understanding the different stages of Alzheimer’s

If you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, your symptoms may progress into varying stages.
Be aware that the stages should only be used as a general guide as it may be difficult to place a person into a specific stage due to symptoms overlapping.

Early-stage Alzheimer’s (mild)

In this early stage a person may be able to function independently - they may still be able to drive, go to work, and take part in social activities.
Despite this, the person may have memory lapses, for example forgetting familiar words or the location of objects.
The symptoms may not be very apparent at this stage, but family or close friends may notice if something is different than usual. The common difficulties in this stage include:

  • Not speaking the right word or name
  • Forgetting names when introduced to new people
  • Having trouble performing in work or social settings
  • Forgetting material that was just read
  • Losing a valuable object
  • Having increased difficulty with planning or organisation


Middle-stage Alzheimer’s (moderate)

This stage is usually the longest and can last for many years, with the symptoms becoming more pronounced.
People with middle-stage Alzheimer’s can still participate in daily activities, but they will need assistance.
Symptoms may include:

  • Forgetting key events or personal history, such as World War 2 or their address and telephone number
  • Changes in personality (they may feel moody and withdraw from socially or mentally challenging situations, become suspicious, experience delusions, and behave compulsively or repetitively)
  • They may experience bouts of confusion
  • Experience difficulty controlling their bladder and bowels
  • A change in sleep patterns
  • An increased tendency to wander and become lost


Late-stage Alzheimer’s (severe)

This is the final stage and it’s where symptoms become severe and individuals lose the ability to respond to their environment, needing extensive care.
At this point, the person may:

  • Need around-the-clock assistance
  • Lose awareness of recent experiences as well as their surroundings
  • Experience changes in their physical abilities such as: walking, sitting and swallowing
  • Have difficulties communicating
  • Become vulnerable to infections


Can Alzheimer’s be cured?

At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. 
In fact, as dementia is caused by multiple diseases it’s unlikely that there will be just one cure.
Big developments have been made to understand how the disease damages the brain to cause dementia, and with increased funding over the years, there are many research studies and clinical trials taking place.
A cure may be available in a few years, but there are some promising advances so far.
However, if detected early, treatments can be explored which may provide relief and aid you in remaining independent for longer.

What to do if you notice any of the signs or symptoms

If you, or maybe someone you know, is showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, you shouldn’t ignore them - schedule an appointment with the GP.
The GP will be able to refer you/them for an assessment to discover the cause.

Alzheimer’s is a serious, progressive disease and should be diagnosed as quickly as possible in order to effectively manage symptoms and provide you with a better quality of life.
Whether you are suffering with dementia or are a primary caregiver, nobody with dementia in their life should feel alone - get involved and join the conversation with #WorldAlzheimersMonth and stand up against the stigma.
For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, visit the NHS website or the Alzheimer’s Society.

Alexandra Moses - editor
James O'Loan - CEO & Prescribing Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Prescribing Pharmacist on 17 September 2021
How we ensure accuracy in our content