If you’re worrying about a loved one’s memory and feel unsure whether it’s anything to be more concerned about, here are brief explanations of the key differences between dementia, memory loss and ageing. 

Natural ageing

During natural ageing our intelligence will remain unchanged while both the body and the brain slow down. Being less mentally and physically malleable is common as is taking longer to process information. Changes such as finding it challenging to remember places and names are normal as we age. Elements that can affect the memory include:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • A bereavement
  • Illness
  • A constant lack of sleep
  • Noise or other distractions
  • Depression
  • Too many things on your mind
  • Too much alcohol
  • The menopause
  • Concussion

Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
When a person has MCI they have problems with either a core brain function or with their memory. While MCI is not something to be taken lightly and can be noticeable, it’s not so severe that it interrupts daily life. Those diagnosed with MCI have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, in particular if their main MCI involves memory, but it is by no means a certainty.

Dementia is a general term used to describe a group of symptoms caused by different brain disorders, dementia is not a disease. An indication that some form of dementia is occurring would be a mental decline severe enough to disrupt daily life. This could be one or more of the following root brain functions:

  • Language ~ the capacity to speak and write, as well as understanding of the written and spoken word
  • Recent memory ~ the ability to learn as well as recall information
  • Executive function ~ the capacity to plan, solve problems, focus and reason
  • Visuospatial function ~ being able to understand and use symbols, maps etc.

Common types of dementia, explained:

Alzheimer’s Disease
Many people with Alzheimer’s disease first notice that they are experiencing forgetfulness severe enough to affect their work, hobbies or social life. Additional common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty multi-tasking
  • Mood changes
  • Becoming disorientated or lost in familiar places
  • Repeating things
  • Trouble with expressing and organising thoughts
  • Confusion and misplacing things

Alzheimer’s disease is a gradually progressive illness that damages nerve cells in the brain. Symptoms increase and advance over time due to the fact that more brain cells are destroyed as time goes on. Though people can have Alzheimer’s in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s the disease is by far the most common in people over age 65. Despite there being currently no cure, treatments are available and most effective when the disease is identified in the early stages.

Vascular Dementia

Cerebrovascular disease is considered the second most common cause of dementia, often referred to as vascular dementia. The symptoms of vascular dementia are wide ranging as it depends on the brain regions involved. The more common symptoms include:

  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Confusion

It occurs when clots block blood flow to parts of the brain, consequently destroying brain cells. These changes can occur over time or very suddenly. People who develop vascular dementia may have a history of high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes.

It’s a commonality for people to have both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia at the same time. Research states that up to 45 percent of people with dementia have signs of both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB)

Dementia with Lewy Bodies is when abnormal deposits of proteins called “Lewy bodies” form inside nerve cells in the brain. Lewy bodies have been found in different brain disorders, including DLB and Parkinson’s disease. Symptoms of Lewy Body Dementia include:  

  • Memory problems
  • Poor judgment and confusion
  • Excessive drowsiness during the day
  • Lower level of alertness
  • Vivid dreams that cause you to act out
  • Movement changes (shakiness, stiffness, lack of facial expression, problems with balance, falls)
  • Visual hallucinations  

Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD)
FTD is a rare disorder that dominantly affects the front and sides of the brain. It usually occurs at a younger age and progresses faster than Alzheimer’s. Symptoms often will include the following:

  • Changes in personality
  • Lack of judgement
  • Inability to planning and conduct social skills
  • Make rude remarks
  • Make unwise decisions about finances or personal matters
  • Clearly disconnected from the situation at hand
  • Expressing excessive excitement
  • Unusually strong urge to eat (weight gain) as a result


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