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Awareness of memory lapses 'a good sign'

31 August 2015 09:00

People with dementia may lose awareness of memory problems 3 years before symptoms develop

People with dementia may lose awareness of memory problems 3 years before symptoms develop

Forgetfulness may be a good sign rather than a bad one among older people, researchers suggest.

Noticing memory lapses, like forgetting someone's name or failing to recall where the car keys are, suggests a person's memory is still functioning well. Scientists say the time to worry is when they stop noticing such lapses.

Their study suggests people with dementia tend to lose awareness of memory problems two to three years before the condition develops.

Memory sharpness

Lead researcher Dr Robert Wilson, from Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, and his team tracked more than 2,000 older individuals with an average age of 76, who were free of dementia at the start of the study.

All of them were given annual tests of memory and thinking ability over a period of 10 years.

They were also asked how often they had trouble remembering things, plus how they rated their memory.

A total of 239 participants were diagnosed with dementia during the course of the analysis. On average, memory sharpness began to decline significantly 2.6 years before they developed symptoms of the condition.

Travel plans

Just because someone has dementia, it does not mean they have to stop doing the things they enjoy, such as going on holiday.

Going abroad is still possible thanks to specialist travel insurance. It offers cover for things like medical expenses, providing more peace of mind.

Lack of awareness

The majority of previous research on memory unawareness relating to dementia has focused on people who have already been diagnosed.

This new study went down a different route, following older adults before they showed signs of the condition.

While there were individual differences in when the unawareness started and how fast it progressed, Dr Wilson says virtually everyone had a lack of awareness of their memory problems at some point in the disease.

He was surprised to see that loss of memory awareness appeared earlier in younger participants - something which could be explained by the fact older people are more likely to expect their memories to fade as a normal part of ageing.

The findings, published in the journal Neurology, suggest that unawareness of memory problems is an inevitable feature of late-life dementia.