Understanding Memory Loss

By National Institute on Aging

After reading this article, you will understand the difference between mild forgetfulness and more serious memory problems; the medical causes of memory problems and how they can be treated; and how to cope with serious memory problems.

We’ve all forgotten a name, where we put our keys, or if we locked the front door. It’s normal to forget things once in a while. However, forgetting how to make change, use the telephone, or find your way home may be signs of a more serious memory problem.

Differences between mild forgetfulness and more serious memory problems.

Jeanne’s story
Jeanne couldn’t find her car keys. She looked on the hook just inside the front door. They weren’t there. She searched in her purse. No luck. Finally, she found them on her desk. Yesterday, she forgot her neighbor’s name. Her memory was playing tricks on her. She was starting to worry about it. She decided to see her doctor.

After a complete check-up, her doctor said that Jeanne was fine. Her forgetfulness was just a normal part of getting older. The doctor suggested that Jeanne take a class, play cards with friends, or help out at the local school to sharpen her memory.

What is mild forgetfulness?

It is true that some of us get more forgetful as we age. It may take longer to learn new things, remember familiar names and words, or find our glasses. These are usually signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems. If you’re worried about your forgetfulness, see your doctor. You also can do many things to help keep your memory sharp. Finding a hobby, spending time with friends, eating well, and exercising may help you stay alert and clear-headed.

Here are some ways to help your memory:

  • Learn a new skill.
  • Volunteer in your community, school, or place of worship.
  • Spend time with friends and family whenever possible.
  • Use memory tools such as big calendars, to-do lists,
    and notes to yourself.
  • Put your wallet or purse, keys, and glasses in the
    same place each day.
  • Get lots of rest.
  • Exercise and eat well.
  • Don’t drink a lot of alcohol.
  • Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time.

What is a serious memory problem?

Serious memory problems affect your ability to carry out everyday life activities such as driving a car, shopping, or handling money. Signs of serious memory problems may
include:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again.
  • Becoming lost in places you know well.
  • Not being able to follow directions.
  • Getting very confused about time, people, and places.
  • Not taking care of yourself — eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe.

If you are having any of the problems listed above, see your doctor. It’s important to find out what might be causing a serious memory problem. Your treatment depends on the cause of the problem.

Medical causes of memory problems and how they can be treated

Al’s story
Al didn’t know what was happening. He was having a hard time remembering things. He wasn’t eating well and couldn’t seem to get interested in seeing friends or taking his usual walk around the neighborhood. He was confused and irritable. He wasn’t sleeping well at night. His wife was worried. She took him to the doctor. It turned out that Al was having a bad reaction to one of his medicines. Once his doctor changed the medicine, Al felt more like his old self.

What causes serious memory problems?

Medical conditions
Certain medical conditions can cause serious memory problems. These problems should go away once you get treatment. Here’s a list of things that cause memory problems:

  • Bad reaction to certain medicines
  • Depression
  • Not having enough fluids in your body, also called dehydration
  • Not eating enough healthy foods, or too few vitamins and minerals in your body
  • Minor head injuries
  • Thyroid problems

These medical conditions are serious and should be treated by a doctor.

Emotional problems

Some emotional problems in older people can cause serious memory problems. Feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored can cause you to be confused and forgetful. Being active, spending more time with family and friends, and learning new skills can help. You may need to see a doctor or counselor for treatment. Once you get help, your memory problems should get better.

Anna’s story
Anna’s mother was still going strong at 85. She kept busy with friends and church activities. But lately, Anna had noticed that things were changing. Her mother was becoming more forgetful and confused. Also, she was spending a lot of time alone in her house, which wasn’t like her. One day, her mom got lost on her way home from shopping. Anna knew it was time to get help. She took her mom to the doctor. Anna was really upset to learn that her mom had early stage Alzheimer’s disease. It’s been tough, but learning about treatment choices and how to live with the disease has helped the whole family. They’re taking one day at a time.

Alzheimer’s disease (pronounced Allz-high-merz di-zeez)

Alzheimer’s disease also causes serious memory problems. The signs of Alzheimer’s disease begin slowly and get worse over time. This is because nerve cell changes in the brain cause large numbers of brain cells to die. It may look like simple forgetfulness at first, but over time, people with Alzheimer’s disease have trouble thinking clearly. They find it hard to do everyday things like shopping, driving, cooking, and having a conversation. As the illness gets
worse, people with Alzheimer’s disease may need someone to take care of all their needs (feeding, bathing, etc.) at home or in a nursing home.

Medication can help. If you are in the early or middle stages of Alzheimer’s
disease, taking medications can help. Some medicines keep symptoms, such as memory loss, from getting worse for a time. Medications also can help if you are
worried, depressed, or are having problems sleeping.

Sam’s story
Sam feels good for a guy his age. He’s an active 70 year old. So, he couldn’t believe it when, all of a sudden, he couldn’t remember what somebody told him 5 minutes ago.

He went for a check-up. The doctor told him that his forgetfulness was caused by small strokes. These strokes had damaged some of his brains cells. She said his problem was called multiinfarct dementia. She said that she couldn’t cure his memory problems, but that she would give him medicine to lower his high blood pressure. This medicine also would lower his chances of having more strokes.

Sam wasn’t happy to find out that his doctor couldn’t fix everything. Even so, he agreed to take his medication. At least then he’d be doing something to keep from having more strokes. Even active people can have memory problems.

Multi-infarct dementia (pronounced Mull-tee in-farkt di-men-sha)

Many people have never heard of multi-infarct dementia. Like Alzheimer’s disease, it is a medical condition that causes serious memory problems. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, signs of multi-infarct dementia may appear suddenly. This is because the memory loss and confusion are caused by small strokes or changes in the blood supply to the brain. If the strokes stop, you can get better or stay the same for a long time. If you have more strokes, you can get worse. Taking care of your high blood pressure can lower your chances of getting this illness.

How to cope with serious memory problems

What should I do if I’m worried about my memory?

See your doctor. If your doctor thinks it’s serious, you may need to have a complete checkup, including blood and urine tests. You also may need to take tests that check your memory, problem solving, counting, and language skills. In addition, you may need a CAT scan of the brain. These pictures can show normal and problem areas in the brain. Once the doctor finds out what is causing your memory problems, ask about what is the best treatment for you.

What can family members do to help?

Family members and friends can help you live as normal a life as possible. They can help you exercise, visit with friends, and keep up your daily routines. They can remind you of the time of day, where you live, and what is happening at home and in the world.

Some families use the following things to help with memory:

  • Big calendars
  • Lists of the plans for each day
  • Notes about safety in the home
  • Written directions for using common household items

Where can I get more information?

There are many resources to help you find out more about memory loss. Contact the following organizations by following the link below to learn about support groups, services, publications on Alzheimer’s disease, research centers, and studies.

For further information about aging diseases, memory loss, and more, please see this list of resources.

 

APA Reference
on Aging, N. (2006). Understanding Memory Loss. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 13, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/understanding-memory-loss/000198
Scientifically Reviewed
    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.

 

 

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