Dementia vs. Memory Loss: How to Tell the Difference

We do not often think of the brain in terms of health the way we think about other body systems. We routinely hear from health professionals about steps we can take to maintain heart health, oral health, or gut health. Are cognitive decline, memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s health topics that we can discuss in a similar manner?

With modern medical knowledge, we absolutely can address brain health. In particular, it is important for individuals to understand the difference between the natural effects of aging and actual brain disease. In this guide, we will review the distinctions between dementia vs. memory loss and dementia vs. Alzheimer’s.

Dementia vs. Memory Loss

Dementia is not the name of an actual disease. Rather, it is a description of a set of symptoms. Dementia occurs when the brain has a health condition that causes memory loss, communication problems, cognitive decline, and problems with emotional regulation. Dementia is caused by one or more underlying conditions.

While memory loss is one of the symptoms included under the general term of dementia, memory loss by itself is not dementia, nor is it always indicative of a serious health condition.

Memory loss is a natural process of aging. Just as most people begin to lose range of motion in their joints and muscles as they age, the brain also shows signs of getting older. The amount of memory loss one may experience, just like the amount of physical limitation, varies by person and could be related to general health. A person who remains physically active, engaged in intellectual activities, eats a healthy diet, and maintains a social life may retain both physical and cognitive health longer into advanced age.

Nurse and resident at a memory care facility.

While general memory loss can be frustrating, or sometimes embarrassing, it is often not a cause for worry. In many cases, very simple habit adjustments will help improve memory skills. For example, it may be necessary to write down information that was once easily memorized. Place regularly needed items in a specific location every day to avoid having to remember where they are. Set a daily reminder to go through text messages or emails to address anything that may have slipped from notice. These simple changes can greatly reduce the effects of memory loss as a natural part of aging.

When memory loss is more pronounced, sudden and severe, or combined with other cognitive impairment, it is time to see a doctor. While the combination of symptoms could signal an issue that is related to dementia vs. memory loss, it also could be any number of physical illnesses that impact cognitive function. Only a medical professional can properly diagnose a condition that causes dementia; individuals should never try to self-manage the symptoms.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s

Whereas dementia is a description of symptoms, Alzheimer’s is an actual disease. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s fit within the dementia category, so Alzheimer’s can be depicted as a disease that causes dementia. Individuals with Alzheimer’s make up a subset of up to 80% of dementia cases.

Alzheimer’s is called a disease because it occurs when the cells of the brain are damaged and begin changing the brain’s ability to function. It is a progressive disease, meaning that it gets worse over time, and there is no known cure. The learning centers of the brain are affected early in Alzheimer’s, making it difficult for individuals to remember new information. As the disease degenerates the brain, the patient loses memories and cognitive abilities. Unfortunately, people with Alzheimer’s may eventually forget the most basic functions like walking, swallowing, and speaking.

Many senior care homes and skilled nursing facilities serve Alzheimer’s patients in a specialized memory care facility. Memory care services provide a greater level of support for individuals with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

Though Alzheimer’s is the most well-known type of dementia, it is not the only cause of dementia symptoms. Understanding the distinctions between dementia vs. Alzheimer’s will help many people be more proactive about seeking medical care when the symptoms do not seem consistent with Alzheimer’s. Some other types of dementia include:

  • Lewy Body Dementia
  • Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Vascular Dementia

All of these diseases that cause dementia require different types of disease management or specialized memory care services. There may be treatments that can alleviate some symptoms for different periods of time and improve quality of life for the individual.

Telling the Difference Between Dementia and Memory Loss

General forgetfulness and minor memory loss are natural signs of aging. Because dementia and Alzheimer’s have gained a great deal of attention in recent years, it is common for seniors to feel distress with any level of memory loss. To be better prepared to evaluate for dementia vs. memory loss, it helps to understand the difference in symptoms.

Symptoms of Dementia

Dementia is more profound than general forgetfulness. Often, the kind of memory loss witnessed with dementia should cause some degree of concern:

  • Repeating the same story within a short window of time
  • Forgetting that a spouse or significant other has died
  • Not recognizing close family members
  • Forgetting to eat, shower, pay bills, or attend appointments
  • Getting lost in familiar locations or forgetting the reason for travel
  • Making repeated or unreasonable financial transactions

Symptoms of Memory Loss

Memory loss as a process of aging is often very random, and it typically only causes minor inconveniences. A simple change of habits as previously mentioned can alleviate many frustrations of normal memory loss such as:

  • Forgetting a grandchild’s name
  • Forgetting birthdays, lunch dates, or casual meetings
  • Misplacing keys or other daily items within one’s own home
  • Second guessing that bills were paid or emails were sent
  • Momentarily forgetting significant events

Getting Care

All seniors should attend regular well-checks with their primary doctor. It is always a good idea to review even minor memory loss symptoms to establish a baseline. Medical doctors are familiar with the range of symptoms that call for additional review or testing and can help patients determine the next steps. They may also have referrals for programs or resources that help people in the earliest stages of dementia.

When families receive a diagnosis of their loved one’s Alzheimer’s disease or other type of dementia, they typically understand that a greater level of care is necessary. Senior care homes that offer a memory care facility provide peace of mind that a loved one with dementia will be well-cared for as their disease progresses. Memory care services are specially designed for safety and therapies that keep patients comfortable while still enjoying a pleasant quality of life. Families are better able to face the challenging realities of Alzheimer’s and dementia in their loved one with the support of a compassionate and skilled medical staff. With the help of a skilled nursing facility and memory care, dementia patients and their families can focus on their relationship rather than the details of medical care.


Because the direct causes of the brain damage that lead to Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases are still largely unknown, it is common for older individuals to worry about any memory loss symptoms. The good news is that dementia is not a standard fact of aging. Most people will live long into advanced age without becoming affected by a progressive dementia disease. Whether you are seeking information about specific memory care services or general information about senior living options, please contact us to learn more.

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