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Understanding Memory and Language

Updated: May 4, 2022

In the broadest sense, memory is the ability to retrieve information from specific areas of the brain. Types of memory fall into two categories – long-term memory and short-term memory.

Understanding Memory and Language

The kinds of information associated with long-term memory are the names, places, and dates that compose our personal history. Long-term memory also includes such things as the skills we have learned as well as the acquisition and use of language.

When Dementia damages our long-term memory banks, we forget such things as our address and birth date, and may no longer remember how to drive the car or to use the washing machine.

When we lose access to our collection of learned information and built-in skills, we require assistance to live safely at home. Short-term memory, or working memory, is the ability to retain small bits of recently learned information, such as phone numbers, login codes, and street addresses.

People who have short-term memory deficits may not remember they have already taken their medication or, just an hour ago, ate lunch.

The ability to recall and use language is one of many ways to assess the progression of Dementia. In addition, specific kinds of language difficulties can help clinicians differentiate Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) from other types of Dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Language difficulties most often associated with Alzheimer’s disease are difficulty in finding the right words, describing objects rather than calling them by name, repeated use of familiar words, relying on gestures to express ideas, and reverting back to speaking a native language.

Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, people who have FTD often have difficulty in using and understanding spoken and written language. Language problems include repeated mispronunciations, such as “sork” for “fork” and the inability to make appropriate associations between names and objects. If your parent is not able to associate an object with a word, he or she may point to a sandwich and call it a baseball. People who have FTD are not aware of how they have changed.

Using words and phrases such as “this,” “that” and “over there” in the place of specific nouns and descriptions are language deficits typical of many types of dementia.

Memory loss and language difficulties often make communication awkward, difficult, and frustrating. It doesn’t take long before “never mind” replaces your efforts to engage in conversation.

Here are a few tips you can use to improve communication between you and your loved one. As you will read, most are expected norms of polite conversation.

  • Give your loved one the time to formulate a response

  • Engage in a one-on-one conversation

  • Converse in a quiet space with few distractions

  • Maintain eye contact

  • Avoid criticizing or correcting misinformation

  • Listen

  • Avoid arguments

  • Speak slowly

  • Give step-by-step instructions

  • Use written notes to prevent the frustration and confusion of remembering details.

Contributor: Janet Yagoda Shagam, Ph.D., is a freelance medical and science writer and the author of “An Unintended Journey: A Caregiver's Guide to Dementia.” Available through Amazon.

The opinions expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily the opinions of the Dementia Society, Inc. We do not endorse nor guarantee products, comments, suggestions, links, or other forms of the content contained within blog posts that have been provided to us with permission, or otherwise. Dementia Society does not provide medical advice. Please consult your doctor.



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