Memory loss

3. Memory loss in dementia

People with dementia will often experience difficulties with their memory, which interfere with their day-to day activities. This memory loss is often due to damage in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which plays a very important role in day-to-day memory. Damage to different parts of the brain will affect different kinds of memory. For more information see factsheet 456, Dementia and the brain.

While memory loss affects everyone differently, many people with dementia experience problems with the following:

  • forgetting recent conversations or events
  • struggling to find the right word in a conversation or forgetting names of people and objects
  • losing or misplacing items (such as keys or glasses) around the house
  • struggling with familiar tasks, such as making a cup of tea
  • forgetting appointments or anniversaries
  • taking medication (for example not remembering whether a regular dose has been taken)
  • getting lost in familiar surroundings (such as the neighbourhood they live in) or on familiar journeys (for example to the shops)
  • recognising faces (even of those closest to them).

As the person’s dementia progresses, their memory will get worse. In the early stages, the person’s long-term memory is often less affected. This is probably because older memories – which are thought about more often – become more firmly established and are more likely to be recalled than newer memories.

Memory also has an emotional aspect. Emotions influence what and how a person remembers and some memories can make the person feel a certain way. Memories can often be triggered by just one part of the memory, such as music or smell. People’s emotional memory is affected much later on in dementia. Before this happens, people can often remember how they felt about something, even if they can’t recall other details about it. For example, a person with dementia may not remember where or when they went on holiday, but they will remember how they felt when they were there.

There are some things that people with dementia may be able to recall for longer. These include:

  • things that happened long ago, especially in late adolescence or early adulthood
  • things that have been done many times, such as a route to school or work
  • things that have been rehearsed and practised over and over again, such as playing a musical instrument or dance steps
  • events or dates that made people feel strong emotions (for example births or marriage, or dates like 11 September 2001 or the assassination of John F. Kennedy).

The emotional impact of living with memory loss

Memory loss can lead to many practical difficulties for a person. It can also have a strong effect on how they and those supporting them feel. Everyone will react differently to their memory problems, but many people become frustrated or worried by them. They may lose self-confidence and be embarrassed by their difficulties. Memory problems can also lead to a person withdrawing from situations or stopping doing things they usually do. They may accuse others of having moved or stolen items they have misplaced. It is important to be aware of these difficulties and find ways to provide support. The following suggestions might help.

  • Encourage the person to talk about how they are feeling.
  • Support the person with any frustration they may be feeling, for example by talking through issues and looking for ways to manage them.
  • Support the person to cope with the difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis, rather than focusing on what may happen in the future.
  • Support the person to focus on what they can still do, and encourage them to continue doing these things.
  • Encourage the person to continue spending time with other people, and to take part in meaningful activities as much as possible.
  • At times, it may be best to change the conversation or activity to try and remove any frustration the person may be feeling. Do this sensitively – it is important not to undermine the person or dismiss their feelings.

There may be concerns that the person’s memory loss will put them at risk. Using assistive technology products (such as a gas detector) can help to reduce the risk. If the person is able to make decisions, it is important that they are supported to do so (see factsheet 460, Mental Capacity Act 2005). Very often, it is a case of balancing the risks against the benefits, and using this to find a suitable solution.

Those supporting the person with dementia are likely to feel a range of emotions due to the person’s memory loss. Remembering that the person’s difficulties are because of their dementia may help you to deal with these feelings. For more information see factsheet 523, Carers: looking after yourself.