There are five A symptoms seen with patients with Alzheimer's disease: Anomia, Apraxia, Agnosia, Amnesia, and Aphasia. This is part four of five about these symptoms and discusses Amnesia. Amnesia is the loss of memory and includes loss of short-term and long-term memory. Note that amnesia is another term for the memory loss symptom seen in a diagnosed Alzheimer's disease; however, a diagnosis of amnesia (due to an accident, brain infection, head injury, etc) is not the same as Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Amnesia - Trouble Remembering New and Old Information for Alzheimer's Patients
The memory loss, or amnesia, seen in Alzheimer's disease can affect both short-term and long-term memories, along with the ability to learn new information. It is important to know that age-related forgetfulness is not the same as the memory loss seen in Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
Memory Loss in Alzheimer's and "Old Age" Forgetfulness are Different
- Trouble learning new information and short-term memory: Difficulty with these types of memory can be some of the first signs of Alzheimer's disease are often missed by family members. It might be brushed off by the person as being due to fatigue or old age, however, there is a difference as these possible examples from the Alzheimer's Association show (note, do not use these to try and diagnose a person - seek medical consult if you have concerns):
- Age-related memory error: Forgets to pay a bill but sees the late charge and corrects it.
- Alzheimer's disease error: Has a number of late charges on bills and possible insufficient fund charges, due to no longer tracking finances accurately.
- Age-related memory error: Misplaces the car keys
- Alzheimer's disease error: Later finds the car keys in the refrigerator.
- Age-related memory error: Sends a birthday card out late by a few days.
- Alzheimer's disease error: Does not recall the family birthday party that last week she had agreed to attend or gets a gift that does not match the event.
- Trouble with long-term memory: Losing long-term memories or mixing them up happens only later in the Alzheimer's disease process, as more parts of the brain are affected. Because long-term memory ability lasts longer into the disease process than short-term memory ability, it explains why the person might forget his own daughter's visit a few hours ago but remember very clearly the day his sisters and parents spent a day at the county fair in childhood.
In early stages of Alzheimer's, reminder notes and alarms can help memory loss
Strategies such as making lists, writing reminder notes, labeling items, and setting alarms for things like taking pills, can be helpful for the person in early stage memory loss. The ability to use the reminder strategies may depend on how aware the person is of their own deficits (some patients deny there is a problem, called anosognosia - see the article on agnosia to learn more).
In later stages of dementia, use items from the past to spark long-term memories
Since long-term memories last much longer for the person with dementia, caregivers can use items and events from the past to show the person or bring up in conversation to spark memories. You might learn some new things you did not know about the person just by taking the time to listen to a story! Looking at a Life Story Scrapbook can be a nice activity for outside caregivers to get to know the person and for family and friends to use when visiting or reminiscing.
Other types of memories that last for the patient with dementia
Procedural memories, or things that we have done over and over, last longer. Examples include walking, washing dishes, and feeding oneself. This can be tapped into later in the disease, by providing activities that use repetitive, familiar steps, such as rolling dough for cookies, polishing leather shoes, and sweeping floors.
Activities that might tie into past experiences the person had, especially ones tied to positive emotions or certain smells or sounds, can also trigger old memories. For instance:
- A fresh apple pie for the woman whose mom made apply pie frequently.
- A favorite hymn sung for the person who used to sing in the church choir.
- A visit by a child for the person who was a former school teacher or loved to babysit.
With this better understanding of memory loss, the patient with Alzheimer's disease and caregivers can better plan for it, manage it, and use what memory remains, for as long as possible, to create enjoyable moments.