When Our Memory Fails: Recognizing Real Loss


Adeline Riley's vibrant personality shines out clearly, but dementia has diminished her brain's memory mechanisms. Her family first noticed that when they'd tell her something multiple times and she wouldn't remember.

Our life is a constantly running film which most of us rewind and fast-forward at will. When it stops running smoothly, we lose track of where we are and, ultimately who we are.

-Geoffrey A. Kerchner, MD, PhD, Stanford Hospital & Clinics Center for Memory Disorders

As time passes, Joe Riley keeps closer and closer watch on his wife—and encourages her in every way he can to keep active, whether it's walking or reading or doing puzzles.

To give promising new treatments their best shot, we need to start them at the first sign of the disease. We need to make the diagnosis early and accurately.

-Michael D. Greicius, MD, MPH, Director, Stanford Hospital & Clinics Center for Memory Disorders
  • Dementia is a broad term, like arthritis, that describes a spectrum of disorders that physically alter the brain and its workings. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. In all its forms, dementia produces a decline in memory or an impact on speech, movement and behavior that has a profound impact on daily life−like not being able to find your way home.
  • Diagnosis of dementia has been largely limited to a broad evaluation of changes in memory, behavior, motor skills, language use and visual processing. Dementia can begin in different areas of the brain, so early symptoms may vary. Stanford researchers are developing new technologies to spot microscopic changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer's. Also in development are tests to identify certain blood proteins that might serve as another early alert to dementia.
  • Dementia's causes are varied, although still not thoroughly defined. In Alzheimer's, two proteins in the brain accumulate and interfere with normal function. Dementia can appear after a stroke. Other, treatable causes of dementia include Vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid dysfunction, alcoholism, substance abuse and infections.
  • Age is the most significant risk factor for dementia. Other risk factors include prior head trauma, coronary artery disease, genetics and family history.
  • Occasionally forgetting something is normal, like the name of a movie you saw two weeks ago. If that memory problem expands or worsens over time, consult your doctor.
  • Preventing dementia is a developing field. A healthy diet and regular activity, including aerobic exercise, may help prevent or slow dementia. So do new intellectual or social experiences−whether reading, solving puzzles or going out with friends. "The important goal is to get out of the armchair," Kerchner said.
For more information about dementia, support groups, classes and other resources:
Center for Memory Disorders
(Phone: 650.723.6469) 

There are times when I'm not remembering anything and other times when I remember real good. It's very frustrating. I just try to remember more.

-Adeline Riley, patient, Stanford Hospital & Clinics Center for Memory Disorders

The one thing I hate to see is families in denial. 'Mom's getting old. She'll be fine.'

-Geoffrey A. Kerchner, MD, PhD, Stanford Hospital & Clinics Center for Memory Disorders