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What is a Subjective Memory Impairment? Here's Everything You Need to Know

memory loss Aug 02, 2022
Senior man with thinking about memory loss

Of all the questions I’m asked as a memory health coach, the #1 question is always: How do I know if my memory changes are a problem?

To answer that question, we must explore what changes you’re experiencing with your memory and thinking and the degree to which these changes are interfering with your life.   

Here’s where it becomes important to understand that there are varying degrees of memory difficulties that can occur. Meaning, it’s not just... do I have early signs of dementia or not? There’s a continuum of normal to abnormal memory changes, with many steps between “normal aging” and dementia. And it all begins with how you feel about your own memory.

If you’ve ever thought, “my memory isn’t what it used to be,” then you’re on the road to understanding subjective memory concerns.

In this article you will learn:

  • The meaning of the term subjective memory
  • Common subjective memory complaints 
  • The difference between a subjective memory impairment and mild cognitive impairment
  • What to do if you're experiencing early signs of memory loss

Grab your copy of The Get Your Memory Back Starter Guide here!

Defining Subjective Memory

Subjective memory is a person’s judgement of their own memory performance. In other words, how you think and feel about your memory. How would you describe your memory function? Do you have a strong memory? Are you forgetful? Do you need help with remembering things?

In general, people have a sense of their own memory function and can detect increased difficulty with their memory performance. 

Subjective Memory Complaints

Subjective memory complaints (SMCs) represent one's perception of subtle changes to their memory in the absence of an objective memory impairment. These complaints generally fall below the detection threshold for common cognitive tests.

Subjective memory complaints without objective cognitive impairments are common in people over the age of 60. As people age, they may become increasingly worried about subtle signs of cognitive change. Generally, it's a positive sign when you are aware of changes in your memory and thinking. Recognizing these differences means you're in the optimal window of time to intervene with meaningful lifestyle changes to support your brain health and memory function, which when done early enough can reverse the signs of cognitive change.

As a memory health coach, my clients frequently present with subjective memory complaints. Here are a few of the more common complaints.

Common Subjective Memory Complaints

  • Difficulty with short-term recall
  • Difficulty word finding in conversation, or words ‘getting stuck on the tip of your tongue’
  • Misplacing everyday items, like your glasses or car keys
  • Taking longer to communicate thoughts and ideas
  • Requiring more time to process new information or complex instructions 

When these subjective memory complaints occur on occasion, they are typically nothing to worry about. We all have those memory moments from time to time. However, if these symptoms occur frequently and impact your ability to think clearly, communicate your thoughts and ideas or stay organized and engaged in your activities of daily living, it’s time to seek help.

If this sounds like you, download The Get Your Memory Back Starter Guide. You'll get instant access to the 4-step formula to guide you from forgetful to focused so you can be present in your life without second guessing yourself, even if you've struggled with it for years!

Other causes of subjective memory complaints

Beyond aging, other lifestyle changes or health factors can result in the onset of memory concerns. Some of which are temporary. 

Other potential causes of subjective memory complaints include:

Understanding and identifying the root cause behind memory changes can be a critical step to reversing subtle memory concerns, especially if there is a sudden shift in your cognitive abilities. Identifying preceding events or stressors can be helpful to resolve the issue entirely.

Otherwise, lingering memory concerns or subjective memory complaints that come about gradually may require additional attention to resolve, slow or stop the decline.

Subjective Memory Impairment

A subjective memory impairment is the name for what you're experiencing when you describe memory changes that fall below the threshold of cognitive concern on objective testing. Currently, there are many studies looking at the relationship between subtle memory concerns and the risk of Mild Cognitive Impairment or dementia.

In some individuals, subjective memory complaints may result as the earliest sign of Alzheimer's disease. However, this is not universally true, and more studies are being conducted to explore the relationship between subtle memory changes and early signs of dementia. 

This study recognized that subjective memory complaints are an important risk factor for progression into mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia in the future. For this reason, it's critical to address your memory concerns, no matter how inconsequential they may seem.

Early intervention with the right memory support and lifestyle strategies can resolve, stop or slow signs of cognitive or memory decline. As a memory health coach, I specialize in helping my clients overcome and prevent memory loss. To learn more about memory health coaching programs, click here.

Mild Cognitive Impairment

Mild Cognitive Impairment, or MCI, is an early stage of memory or cognitive ability loss in individuals who maintain the ability to independently perform activities of daily living. It's characterized by subtle changes in memory or thinking that are sometimes confused with normal aging, however, these changes are not a typical part of the aging process.

How does a subjective memory impairment differ from mild cognitive impairment?

The key difference between a subjective memory impairment and mild cognitive impairment is the impact of the changes observed. A person with mild cognitive impairment will have evidence of cognitive change on objective testing. Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment are evident enough to be noticed not only by the person affected but also by those close to the person, like family and friends whereas subjective memory complaints are less obvious to others. 

Addressing subjective memory concerns as early as possible is the best way to prevent progression into mild cognitive impairment.

Who can diagnose memory impairment?

If you're experiencing concerns about your memory, it's important to schedule an appointment with your doctor. Be clear and open about your concerns as well as any big lifestyle changes, medications or events that may have preceded these changes. 

Factors your doctor may consider in regard to your memory concerns: 

  • Onset of the symptoms
  • Health history and family health history
  • How evident and persistent the problem appears
  • Any additional concerns related to thinking and problem solving
  • Impact on daily life
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Mental health status

Be prepared to advocate for yourself. Unfortunately, memory changes are often normalized or disregarded if you are not clear and persistent about your concerns. 

Tips for communicating memory concerns with your doctor

Be honest, open and clear about your concerns. Find a doctor you trust and feel comfortable communicating these concerns with. Here are a few additional tips to help you communicate your concerns clearly:

  • Document signs of change and be specific. Example, "I'm more forgetful" is not as telling as, "Lately, I've forgotten two appointments without realizing," or "In the past week, I attended to Zoom meetings at work and couldn't recall details from the discussions an hour later."
  • Record the frequency of your memory lapses. Is it daily, weekly? Multiple times per day?
  • Write it down. If you're feeling forgetful, don't rely on your brain mid-appointment to clearly recall and express your concerns.
  • Come with questions. An appointment with your doctor is a two-way street. Ask for information and resources to help.

If you need support for your memory, I'd love to support you. Click here to schedule a free 30-minute appointment to learn more about how working with a memory health coach can help you overcome and prevent memory loss.

Don't forget your copy of The Get Your Memory Back Starter Guide here

Final Takeaway on Subjective Memory Complaints

If you're experiencing subtle signs of memory loss, now is the time to act, no matter how inconsequential your concerns may seem. Acting early is the most effective way to overcome and prevent memory loss. 

It's never too early or too late to learn how to support your memory, strengthen it and keep it healthy for a lifetime. 

If you need support for your memory, I'd love to support you. Click here to schedule a free 30-minute appointment to learn more about how working with a memory health coach can help you overcome and prevent memory loss.

Questions? Contact Francine Here

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Meet the Coach

Hey there! I'm Francine, a speech-language pathologist turned memory health coach with a passion for helping you overcome your memory problems.

In my practice, I help women just like you trade memory problems for confidence and clarity everyday so you can think clearly and remember easily, without constant self-doubt weighing you down. 

If you're struggling with poor recall and foggy thinking, you're in the right place and I want to help you!


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