Why do Alzheimer's patients remember certain things and forget others?

14 answers | Last updated: Dec 08, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

Why can my dad, who has early Alzheimer's, forget what happened five minutes ago but remember the name of his fourth-grade teacher?

Expert Answers

Washington University School of Medicine professor John C. Morris directs the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in St. Louis.

Alzheimer's disease affects recent memories first. The retention of new information is most affected, while recollections of things that happened in the past are much more resistant. The loss of recent events is often one of the first, if not the first, symptom of the disease.

Because the changes of Alzheimer's come on so gradually, it's usually hard to pinpoint when the first symptoms appeared. What's more, the memory loss can initially be pretty subtle. (And in today's hectic world, everybody has some memory lapses now and then.) It often takes a year or longer to realize that the situation is getting worse and that the memory loss is not just occasional but consistent and unusual for the person.

Typically, memories that are well encoded are those your father will remember best. He's had lots of practice recalling those memories over the years. While you may not consciously remember your fourth-grade teacher, your mind rehearses that memory on its own and its ability to be recalled gets strengthened.

Eventually, long-term memories will be affected as well, and even in the early stages of the disease, it may become more difficult for your dad to accurately recall some things that happened a long time ago.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

It was a good explanation of how Alzheimer first start with few recent memory lost. Thank you.

Mustafamahmud answered...

It really a good information for us who has to deal with the Alzheimer patient.thanks

Frena answered...

memory is also store din different parts of the brain. short-term memory is considered to be stored mainly in frontallobe area while longterm memory is stored elsewhere. plus, although this is rarely talked about, elders have memory intensification of longterm recall whether they have dementia or not. in human lives, that is where most of the urgent memory work is done, the memory work that allows people to die in peace with all issues settled, forgiven, accepted. what a pity we hardly ever acknowledge that great work of heart and soul.

Pancake answered...

I hoped to get an answer for a mix of memory abilities regarding recent, new information. For example, why can my husband remember every stroke of a 18 hole round of golf but not where the coffee cups are or where I am after he has asked and been told several times?

Frena answered...

Hi Pancake, let me try this one.

as you know, short-term memory is hugely afflicted in dementia. this also means that short-term memory info is not able to be stored. (apparently, it takes about 2 hours for an event to move into longterm memory storage.) that time is NOT available for people who have already been disabled in short-term memory by the disease process of dementia.

so, your husband can't store the coffee cup info.

with regard to golf, it has a special emotional relationship for him that coffee cups don't. i once cared for a lady who literally could not find her way from one room in her own home to another. But she could recount every card played in a game of bridge and still played bridge three times a week.

this irritating, yet endearing, fact is common. probably there is a very well established brain track for storing game info that may not actually be in the physical area of short-term memory processing (the frontal lobe area). it may be saved elsewhere in the brain.

different types of memory are stored in different parts of the brain. it's actually fascinating, when we're relaxed. so dont take it personally because he doesn't plan it that way.

keep a coffee cup out in sight for him. maybe that'll work.

North texas answered...

Can stress be a contributing factor in memory loss? For example, my husband who was diagnosed with AZ last year was having problems at work with a coworker who wanted him and his partner fired. She caused so much stress until his partner quit and ultimenly my husband retired. My husband was under a tremendous amount of stress due to this situation and still talks about this constantly. I just don't know if this made the AZ worse or if he doesn't have AZ and it is the stress that is making him forget things. On the test he takes for AZ he does better than I do, yet on some days I have to repeat things three and four times. The doctor diagnosed him with AZ last year, but he hasn't gotten any worse thank God. Am I just in denial? I keep hoping its stress.

Frena answered...

stress IS a major issue in memory deficiency. there is a simple chemical explanation. Cortisol is the stress chemical produced by the adrenal glands, so you can run really fast from pursuing dinosaurs [original plan]. now we don't have to run from them, we still have the basic stress fuel system in place.

So any stress in life triggers over-production of cortisol. and, here'e the biggie, Cortisol attacks Choline and choline is one of the most important brain chemicals that supports short-term memory function.

anyone, from sixteen to 96, experiences short-term memory issues during very stressful times. check it out with your friends going through some very stressful situation and you'll find short-term memory and concentration issues there.

in my own work with dementia, i found and have written about the fact that the majority of people later diagnosed with dementia have a very difficult start in life. so, they begin with highly stressed systems.

i'd never try to diagnose your hubby, Mz. Denial, but i do suggest a regime of tender care and support for the stressed out system (vit B complex and a really good diet, plus non-stressful exercise, plus lots of love) would all do a lot for him (and you!). and only once the stress is reduced in those ways, will you truly begin to find out what's going on with him.

my experience of the medical profession is that they too easily say someone has dementia, without considering all the issues. if his own personal doctor diagnosed him without a full alzheimer's workup, it's not a valid diagnosis anyway. it needs the full workup, including the NPH test. (don't overlook the fact that maybe, just maybe, your hubby was having work problems because of memory issues. it's not unheard of, alas)

however, you wont hurt him or you by sticking with denial for now, if that works better for you both. since there is no valid "fix" for alzheimer's right now, you won't be harming either of you with your denial at this point. be sure to talk with him about the situation and get his input too. the more you share, the more you support each other.

keep your eyes open to see what's going on with him, go to a doctor whenever you notice changes or function drop down. and understand that in the case of alzheimer's, there's nothing very meaningful in having that name and current research is showing that 50 percent of the time it has actually been the WRONG name, duh.

so, learn dementia. be in denial but know when to stop. have a greeeat vacation! it won't hurt.

Jomo528 answered...

i am going into my 3rd year of altzimers.here is what i know.first have a great wife and family.next accept the the fact that you0..mus..must. acknowlage the fact that you mustlower .yourexpectations of what what you could doto what you can do.also stay in areas whereyou are familiar.and most of all visit your grandchildren often so they remember you whenyou.cannot remember them.i personally intend to be arroundALONGTIME.NEVER GIVE UP NEVER GIVE UP NEVER GIVE UP!!!

Maryanndodge answered...

Is the loss of memory why my mom has forgotten my name and hers and all other people that were in her life such as her deceased husband. Also my mom mostly talks jibberish but she regularly comes up with perfectly formed sentances. What is happening when this occurs?

Nanners63 answered...

I have early onset Alzheimer's. Diagnosed 2 years ago, and I just turned 50. Watched my mother pass away from it in 2007, and my father from complications of it on 02/17/2013. I hate they went through it, but I'm thankful I know, what is going to happen to me to some extent. I will tell ALL of you though, EVERY person is different and unique and so is their Alzheimer's. My Mother lost the ability to do everything including smile, swallow, all she did was mumble, and had to be fed. Her vocabulary shrunk until it was gone. My Father could not remember anything literally MOMENTS after being told, and got his past all kinds of mixed up, but his vocabulary was never effected like my Mothers was. Looking like I am going my Mothers direction. I'm not scared at all. Living each day to it's fullest, best I can as I also have Transverse Myelitis. I have had a great life, and still do. The only sadness I have.....is for what I will put my family through in the future.

Karenlorenzo answered...

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and usually affects short term and recent memories first. As events unfold, they become more forgetful everyday. They may even forget the names of people that they have just met. Soon, as the disease progress, it will not only affect they memory but their thinking and behavior as well.

Although there is no cure for the disease yet, infolongtermcare.org advised that it will not help to isolate people who are affected. Treat and interact with them the way you would for other normal people. In addition, it would be better to reply to them with short answers like "yes" or "no" because they may have difficulty comprehending complex sentences and would only increase the chances of making the disease progress. Research and know more about the disease so you will have better idea on how to cope with them :)

Ruepaul answered...

This dialoge was very interesting and heartfelt. As the wife of a lovely, gentle person suffering with Vascular Dementia I have seen a real improvement in him from when he was daignosed three years ago. I am not in denial! I see the losses also. But he is a very pleasant person. Speaks lucidly, can give very good advice and is HAPPY and I am enjoying life with him. I know I am very fortunate.

Trobins1969 answered...

My mother has Alzheimer's. I think you might find this YouTube clip good/helpful. If you've not seen it, it's a nice analogy that helps explain how the memory works.