What's the difference between an attention lapse and memory loss?

Have you ever had trouble remembering the names of unfamiliar people? Those of us in middle age and beyond may wonder if this is a warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Rebecca Amariglio, from the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), offers some insight into the differences between lapses of attention, a normal part of aging, and memory loss, a sign of something more serious.

“Lapses of attention include walking into a room and forgetting why you walked in. This is likely a part of normal aging. Memory loss is categorized as a decline in the ability to recall conversations, remember appointments, or remember recent events,” notes Dr. Amariglio. Memory loss can also be a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 5 million Americans. Though Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, finding better ways to detect and potentially treat the disease in its early stages is key to improving the quality of life for those affected. Research led by Dr. Amariglio has found that the subtle changes that people observe in their own memory, called “subjective cognitive concerns,” may help physicians identify people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

“A person’s own awareness that his or her memory is worse may be related to early brain changes from Alzheimer’s disease,” said Amariglio. “Years before a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, the individual may be the best judge that his or her memory isn’t what it used to be.”

Dr. Amariglio and her team evaluated nearly 200 patients. Study participants were asked about their memory concerns and were also given a specialized brain scan, known as positron emission tomography (PET), to look for buildup of a protein called beta amyloid. (The abnormal accumulation of beta amyloid in the brain is a known risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.)

Dr. Amariglio’s team found that participants with the greatest beta amyloid levels on their PET scans also reported the greatest “subjective cognitive concerns” about their memory levels on study questionnaires, suggesting that people with the greatest “subjective concerns” are also at greatest risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers plan to continue following the participants for several years to determine more about the connection between “subjective cognitive concerns” and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

If you’re concerned about changes in your memory or the memory of a loved one, be sure to speak with your physician.

Learn more about memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease:

Tom L./Jamie R.

comments (2)