Memory loss and dementia

Memory loss is a distressing part of dementia, both for the person with the condition and for the people around them.

How does memory loss affect a person with dementia?

People with dementia often experience memory loss. This is because dementia is caused by damage to the brain, and this damage can affect areas of the brain involved in creating and retrieving memories.

For a person with dementia, memory problems will become more persistent and will begin to affect everyday life. This can be difficult to cope with, both for the person themselves and for the people around them.

However, there are ways to help a person with dementia manage their memory problems and stay independent for longer. 

Read our free booklet

For straightforward advice and practical tips written directly for the person with memory loss, get a copy of our free booklet called The Memory Handbook.

Get the memory handbook

What does memory loss look like in a person with dementia ?

Memory loss can be a symptom of any type of dementia. For people with Alzheimer’s disease, it is often among the very first signs.

Memory can be affected in different ways. These include:

  • not being able to create new memories – this means that recent events are not ‘recorded’ in the person’s memory and so cannot be recalled later. For example, the person may forget a conversation they have just had.
  • taking longer to retrieve information – this means that, even though the person is still able to recall things, this takes them much longer or they might need a prompt. For example, they might need more time to find the name for an object.
  • not being able to retrieve information – this means that, even though the person may be able to create new memories, they are not able to access them when needed. For example, they may get lost in familiar surroundings or on journeys they have taken many times.

Memory loss affects everyone differently but many people with dementia experience some of the following:

  • forgetting recent conversations or events
  • struggling to find the right word in a conversation
  • forgetting names of people and objects
  • losing or misplacing items (such as keys or glasses)
  • getting lost in familiar surroundings or on familiar journeys
  • forgetting how to carry out familiar tasks (such as making a cup of tea)
  • forgetting appointments or anniversaries
  • not being able to keep track of medication, and whether or when it has been taken
  • struggling to recognise faces of people they know well.

These changes may be more visible to family and friends than to the person themselves.

For ideas on how to support someone with these memory problems, see ‘Practical tips for supporting someone with memory loss’.

Different types of memory problems

Older memories – which have been recalled or spoken about more often – are more firmly established than newer memories. This means that a person with dementia may forget recent events, but still be able to recall detailed memories from earlier life.

In the same way, people with dementia may still be able to remember things that they have repeated many times in their life, such as a route to school. This also includes skills that involved a lot of practice, like playing a musical instrument or driving.

People with dementia may also be able to remember more emotional events such as weddings or birthday parties. This is because memory also has an emotional aspect to it. This emotional memory is usually affected much later on in dementia.

This means that a person with dementia may remember how they feel about an event even if they have forgotten the details of it. For example, they may not remember where they went on holiday, or that a friend came to visit, but they may still feel happy about it after.

This emotional memory can be triggered by senses, such as hearing a certain piece of music or smelling a certain fragrance. 

Listen to our helpsheet for a summary of the signs and symptoms of dementia.

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