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Overview of memory loss, mild cognitive impairment & dementia

Forgetfulness and memory loss are common in people of all ages. This type of forgetfulness is normal among older people and generally isn't a cause for any alarm. When it starts to affect your daily life in areas such as work, hobbies, relationships, and social activities, it may be a concern, as these are early signs of dementia.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)

MCI is when your memory or mental function gets worse, but it's not enough of a problem to affect your day-to-day life and activities. MCI is the stage between normal age-related memory loss and the more serious symptoms of dementia. While you, your family or close friends will be aware of this decline in your memory, unlike people who have advanced dementia, you can still be independent in your daily life.

MCI can involve memory, language, thinking and judgement.

If you have MCI, you have an increased risk of developing dementia, especially if your main difficulty is with your memory. The greater the level of memory impairment the greater the risk of developing dementia. However, some people with mild cognitive impairment don't get worse, and a few eventually return to normal.

If you have MCI it is important that you see your GP every year. This will allow you, your family and carers to discuss any concerns. Keeping yourself as healthy as possible can help minimise the risk of dementia developing. Keep healthy by eating well, staying active, keeping up with your friends and family and continuing to do the things you enjoy.


Dementia is a more serious form of memory problem and is a general term for a set of symptoms that are caused by disease affecting the brain. A common symptom is memory loss, which affects your daily life such as difficulties with language, understanding and reasoning.

Dementia is caused when there is damage to brain cells, preventing the nerve cells from sending messages to each other. There are different forms of dementia, with the two most-common being Alzheimer disease and vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is caused by problems in the blood supply to the brain commonly due to a stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA).

Although dementia is more common in older people, it can affect younger people in their 40s and 50s too. It's also important to know that not all older people get dementia (about one person in five over the age of 80 may get it).

Symptoms of memory loss

Age-related memory changes may include occasionally misplacing things such as your keys, glasses, walking into the kitchen and forgetting what you went in for, forgetting someone's name, or having trouble remembering what you have just read or details of a conversation.

Symptoms of MCI may include misplacing or losing things often, frequently forgetting conversations, appointments or events or difficulty following a conversation.

Symptoms of dementia are more complex and varied. Some common symptoms are memory loss which affects your daily life, such as misplacing things, difficulties with communication and language, understanding, reasoning and judgement. Social behaviour may also change, and there may be changes in walking style. Dementia can include one, or a combination of these symptoms.

Getting help for memory loss & dementia

If you're worried about your memory, or you are developing any symptoms, it doesn't necessarily mean you have dementia, but you should make an appointment with your GP so you can discuss your concerns.

If you're worried that someone close to you may have dementia, encourage them to make an appointment to see their GP. You could suggest that you go along with them. It's important to remember that the person may feel frightened about getting a diagnosis of dementia, which may make them reluctant to seek help. Giving them reassurance may make them more willing to visit their GP. If you're having trouble convincing them, you could suggest that it would give everyone who loves them peace of mind for them to visit their GP and clear up your worries.

On the next page: Tips for managing memory loss

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed August 2019.

See also:

Living well with dementia

Reducing my risk of dementia

Support for carers

Tips for managing memory loss


Page reference: 555671

Review key: HIMLD-33325