Memory changes

There is a difference between memory loss as a part of normal ageing and as a symptom of dementia. This information describes those differences and provides some tips on keeping your memory sharp.

One of the main symptoms of dementia is memory loss. We all forget things from time to time, but the loss of memory with dementia is very different. It is persistent and progressive, not just occasional. It may affect the ability to continue to work, or carry out familiar tasks. It may mean having difficulty finding the way home. Eventually it may mean forgetting how to dress or how to bathe. An example of normal forgetfulness is walking into the kitchen and forgetting what you went in there for, or misplacing the car keys. A person with dementia however, may lose the car keys and then forget what they are used for.

Key points about normal forgetfulness

  • As we get older, the most common change that we complain about is memory change. Knowledge about how memory changes as we get older is a lot more positive than it was in the past.
  • Memory change with healthy ageing certainly doesn't interfere with everyday life in a dramatic way.
  • Everyone is different, and the effect of getting older on memory is different for each person.
  • Recent research describes the effect of getting older on attention processes, on the ability to get new information into storage, on the time it takes to recall things and “on the tip of the tongue” experiences.
  • Research also suggests that immediate memory and lifetime memory do not change as we get older.

Based on Remembering Well, by Delys Sergeant and Anne Unkenstein.

Debunking memory myths

Myth One

Forgetfulness is a sign that something is wrong with your brain.


If we didn't possess the capacity to forget we'd all go crazy. The ability to remember what is important and discard the rest is a skill to be treasured.

Myth Two

You lose 10,000 brain cells a day, and one day you just run out.


This is an an exaggerated fear. Some parts of the brain do lose nerve cells, but not where the process of thinking takes place. You lose some nerve connections, but it's possible to grow new ones, or maintain the connections you have, by exercising your mind.

Myth Three

Compare yourself to others to tell if your memory is normal.


A huge range of ability exists across the general population. Even a single individual experiences variations in memory over the course of a lifetime. Just as certain people have a talent for music and others do not, some of us are naturally gifted at various types of remembering.

From Memory: Remembering and forgetting in everyday life, by Dr Barry Gordon.

Tips for keeping your memory sharp

As yet, there is no prevention or cure for dementia. However, here are a few tips for keeping your brain fit and memory sharp:

  • Avoid harmful substances. Excessive drinking and drug abuse damages brain cells
  • Challenge yourself. Reading widely, keeping mentally active and learning new skills strengthens brain connections and promotes new ones
  • Trust yourself more. If people feel they have control over their lives, their brain chemistry actually improves
  • Relax. Tension may prolong a memory loss
  • Make sure you get regular and adequate sleep
  • Eat a well balanced diet
  • Pay attention. Concentrate on what you want to remember
  • Minimise and resist distractions
  • Use a notepad and carry a calendar. This may not keep your memory sharp, but does compensate for any memory lapses
  • Take your time
  • Organise belongings. Use a special place for unforgettables such as car keys and glasses
  • Repeat names of new acquaintances in conversation.

Distinguishing points between dementia and normal memory loss

The difference between normal forgetfulness and dementia
DescriptionPerson with dementia‘Normal’ older adult
EventsMay forget part or all of an eventMemory may sometimes be vague, sometimes may forget
Words or names for things or objectsProgressively forgetsWords or names are on the 'tip of the tongue'
Written and verbal directionsIncreasingly unable to followAble to follow
Stories on TV, in movies or booksProgressively loses ability to followAble to follow
Stored knowledgeOver time loses known information such as historical or political informationAlthough recall may be slower, information is essentially retained
Everyday skills such as dressing and cookingProgressively loses capacity to perform tasksRetains ability, unless physically impaired
Alzheimers Australia NSW