By Michael Howard, Ph.D.
While some memory loss — such as misplacing the car keys or wondering where that library book is — happens to people as they age, the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementing illnesses is far more dramatic, severe, and progressive.
Memory loss is one of the distinguishing symptoms of AD, and it influences other aspects of the disease as well. Memory loss affects communication because the individual begins to forget words and, over time, loses the ability to read and write. Memory loss also affects mood and behavior because patients inevitably become frustrated, angry, and depressed as continual and worsening lapses impair their ability to think and function effectively. Several medications have been shown to slow memory loss and other cognitive decline. Many professionals also believe that exercises designed to stimulate memory, including memory enhancement and reality orientation exercises, may help slow deterioration somewhat. However, these exercises are demanding because they need to be repeated several times a day, and it would be helpful if caregivers could enlist the help of friends and relatives to work with the patient at specific times of the day or week.
Short-term memory loss, that is, loss of memories of events that occurred from several seconds to several days or weeks ago, is the first type of memory to become impaired with dementia. Patients may forget that they just finished a meal, or that a favorite cousin just paid a visit. Loss of long-term memory, memory for events that occurred months or years ago and that also involves remembering how to perform basic tasks such as cooking and dressing, is affected during the middle and later stages of the illness. The effects of memory loss cut across every aspect of the lives of people with AD and other dementias, affecting their ability to communicate, work, enjoy free time and relaxation, and care for themselves. In the later stages of illness, individuals lose their ability to recognize their spouses, family members, and friends. They forget how to bathe, dress, feed themselves, and use the toilet.