Memory loss: when to seek help

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There are several conditions, not just Alzheimer's disease, that can cause memory loss in older adults. It is important to get an immediate diagnosis and receive appropriate care.

Everyone forgets things sometimes. Maybe you lost your car keys or forgot the name of a person you just met.

It is common for aging to involve some degree of memory problems, as well as a slight deterioration in other reasoning skills. However, there is a difference between normal changes in memory and the memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. Also, some memory problems are the result of conditions that can be treated.

If you have memory problems, see your health care provider for a diagnosis and appropriate medical care.

Memory loss and aging

Normal age-related memory loss does not cause major disruptions in daily life. For example, you might occasionally forget a person's name, but remember it later in the day. You may sometimes lose your glasses. Or maybe you need to make lists more often than in the past to remind yourself of appointments or tasks.

These memory changes are usually manageable and do not affect your ability to work, live independently, or have a social life.

Memory loss and dementia

The word "dementia" is a generic term used to describe a set of symptoms, such as impairment of memory, reasoning, judgment, language, and other thinking skills. Dementia usually starts progressively, worsens over time, and affects a person's abilities at work, social interactions, and relationships.

Life-interrupting memory loss is often one of the first or most recognizable signs of dementia. Other early signs could include:

  • Ask the same questions over and over again
  • Forget common words when speaking
  • Mixing words: say "bed" instead of "table", for example
  • Taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe
  • Placing objects in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in the kitchen drawer
  • Getting lost while walking or driving in a familiar area
  • Having changes in mood or behavior for no apparent reason

The diseases that cause progressive damage to the brain, and that result in dementia, are the following:

  • Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia
  • vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies
  • Limbic-predominant age-related TDP-43 encephalopathy
  • A combination of several types of dementia (mixed dementia)

The disease process (pathology) of each of these conditions is different. Memory loss isn't always the first sign, and the type of memory problems varies.

mild cognitive impairment

This implies a marked decline in at least one area of ​​thinking skills, such as memory, that is greater than the changes of aging and less than those of dementia. Having mild cognitive impairment does not prevent you from doing everyday tasks and participating in social life.

Researchers and doctors are still learning about mild cognitive impairment. For many people, the condition eventually progresses to dementia due to Alzheimer's disease or another disorder that causes dementia.

In people with normal age-related memory loss, symptoms usually do not progress much and they do not develop the range of symptoms associated with dementia.

Reversible Causes of Memory Loss

Many medical problems can cause memory loss or other dementia-like symptoms. Most of these conditions can be treated. Your doctor can examine you for conditions that cause reversible memory impairment.

Possible causes of reversible memory loss include:

  • Medicines. Certain medications or a combination of medications can cause forgetfulness or confusion.
  • Minor head trauma or head injury. A head injury from a fall or accident, even if you don't lose consciousness, can cause memory problems.
  • Emotional disorders. Stress, anxiety, or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, trouble concentrating, and other problems that disrupt daily activities.
  • Alcoholism. Chronic alcoholism can severely affect mental abilities. Alcohol can also cause memory loss by interacting with medications.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 helps keep nerve cells and red blood cells healthy. A vitamin B12 deficiency, common in older adults, can cause memory problems.
  • Hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) can cause forgetfulness and other thinking problems.
  • Brain diseases. A brain tumor or infection can cause memory problems or other dementia-like symptoms.
  • Sleep apnea. Untreated sleep apnea can cause memory problems, which improve with proper treatment.

When to see the doctor

If you are concerned about memory loss, see your doctor. There are tests to determine the degree of memory impairment and diagnose the cause.

Your doctor is likely to ask you questions. It is a good idea to be accompanied by a family member or friend to answer some questions based on his observations. Your questions could be:

  • When did you start having memory problems?
  • What drugs, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and dietary supplements, are you taking and in what doses?
  • Have you recently started taking a new medication?
  • What tasks are difficult for you?
  • What have you done to handle the memory problems?
  • How much alcohol do you drink?
  • Have you recently had an accident, have you fallen or injured your head?
  • Have you been sick recently?
  • Do you feel sad, depressed or anxious?
  • Have you recently had a major loss, significant change, or stressful event in your life?

In addition to giving you a general physical exam, your doctor will likely give you question-and-answer tests to test your memory and other reasoning skills. He or she might also order blood tests, brain imaging tests, and other tests to try to identify reversible causes of memory problems and dementia-like symptoms.

You may be referred to a specialist in the diagnosis of dementia or memory disorders, such as a neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or geriatrician.

The importance of a diagnosis

Accepting memory loss and the possible onset of dementia can be difficult. Some people try to hide memory problems, and some family members or friends make up for a person's memory loss, sometimes without realizing how much they have adjusted to the disability.

It is important to get a timely diagnosis, even if it is difficult. Identifying a reversible cause of memory impairment allows you to get the right treatment. In addition, an early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease, or a related disorder is beneficial because the following can be done:

  • Begin treatments to control symptoms
  • Educate yourself and loved ones about the disease
  • Determine future care preferences
  • Identify care centers or home care options
  • Resolve financial or legal issues

Your doctor can help you identify resources and community organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association, to help you deal with memory loss and other symptoms of dementia.

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Nathan Rivera
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