6 Causes of Memory Problems Besides Dementia
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You know the story. You forget why you entered a room. You don’t remember where you left your keys. Is this dementia or normal aging? Please don’t panic. Frequently, memory lapse as we age is normal. Differentiating between normal aging and dementia can help you make future decisions.

What is Normal Aging?

Normal aging has been a difficult thing to define as our ideas of this change almost daily. Health and geriatric experts are on the exciting forefront of describing what healthy aging means. Old, outdated perceptions that equate normal aging with dementia are being challenged. Normal aging looks different for everyone but can be influenced by the following factors:

  • An active and engaged mind
  • A strong social life
  • A consistent exercise program that combines aerobic activity with strength training
  • Good nutrition

Read: How Positive Attitudes Around Aging Can Reduce Risk of Dementia

6 Causes of Memory Problems Besides Dementia

Memory problems are not always a result of dementia. Memory problems can be caused by several other factors, many of which are reversible. Possible causes of memory problems include:

1. Medications.

Some of the medications implicated in memory loss or impairment are listed below:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Anti-Parkinson drugs
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Cardiovascular drugs
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Corticosteroids
  • Narcotics
  • Sedatives

Action Steps: Talk to your doctor if you have concerns. Ask questions about possible side effects of prescribed medications. Compare medications.

2. Depression.

Some of the symptoms of depression can mimic dementia. These include:

  • Memory problems
  • Inattention
  • Slowed responses

Research has found that factors correlating with a senior’s depression include absence of social support, reduced physical or mental ability, increased pain, reduced self-respect, and fatigue. One easy way for family caregivers to reduce a senior’s depression is by visiting. Seeing a friendly face, engaging in small talk, and participating in an activity can all boost a senior’s mood, reduce loneliness, and help improve quality of life.

Action Steps: Depression can often be determined by a test given by your doctor. This test consists of a series of questions about feelings, sleep habits, energy level, and more. A senior could be prescribed antidepressants. Psychotherapy may also be of help and be another route to take if a senior experiences unpleasant side effects from medication. Depression can be mild, moderate, or severe. Please don’t ignore a depression diagnosis. Even a mild depression can become problematic and restrict a person from routine functioning and participating in enjoyable activities.

3. Low or High Thyroid Levels.

Your thyroid plays an important role in your personal health – it releases a thyroid hormone which controls the growth and metabolism of every part of your body. If you experience a low thyroid level, your thyroid may not be producing enough thyroid hormone. Here are a few signs of a problematic low thyroid:

  • Feeling tired
  • Gaining weight
  • Feeling cold
  • Weakening muscles
  • Losing hair

Conversely, a high thyroid level means that your thyroid is producing excessive thyroid hormone. High thyroid symptoms are listed below:

  • Feeling nervous, anxious, and irritable
  • Swinging moods
  • Sleeping problems
  • Feeling persistent tiredness and weakness
  • Being sensitive to heat

Action Steps: Ask your doctor for a thyroid test, which is done with a blood draw. This measures hormones from the thyroid itself, as well as thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH). Adopt better eating habits and include foods containing zinc like nuts, seeds, lentils, yogurt, ricotta cheese, and wild rice. Include more iodine in your diet through iodized salt, saltwater fish, and seaweed. Finally, eat more selenium from dark green vegetables, sardines, brazil nuts, brown rice, pinto beans, and dates.

4. Delirium.

ScienceDaily.com describes delirium as “a medical term used to describe an acute (i.e. relatively recent) decline in attention-focus, perception, and cognition.” Delirium is probably the single most common acute disorder affecting adults in general hospitals. Scientific studies have found that delirium is common for older persons in the hospital setting, with occurrence rates ranging from 29-64%.

In addition to hospitals, other high-risk settings for delirium include:

  • Postoperative: 12-51%
  • Intensive care: 19-82%
  • Nursing home: 20-56%
  • Palliative care: 47%
  • Stroke units: 27%
  • Emergency room: 8-17%

Delirium is not a disease, but rather a clinical syndrome (a set of symptoms), which results from an underlying disease or new problem with thinking. Symptoms include confusion and disorientation. Delirium can be caused by severe or chronic illness, or changes in metabolic balance (such as low sodium). Other culprits include medications, infection, surgery, or alcohol or drug intoxication or withdrawal.

Action Steps: Keep your loved one comfortable, well-fed, and well-hydrated. Caregivers can help with meal prep for senior nutrition and help with reducing the risk of dehydration. You can also try reading out loud to them, reminding them of where they are, or talking about current news stories (this can provide a different focus). If possible, keep someone with delirium at their home as this will be the most familiar environment.

5. Vitamin Deficiencies.

Does your loved one have brittle hair or nails? Poor night vision? Dandruff? These are among the many signs of vitamin deficiencies. Vitamins A, B12, C, and D are among the most common vitamin deficiencies. The human body also requires nutrients as well including iron, calcium, and magnesium.

Action Steps: Book some lab tests with their doctor. Again, a simple blood draw will determine if they are vitamin deficient. You can find vitamins at your local pharmacy (these can be either chewed or swallowed with water).

6. Sleep Problems.

Chronic insomnia can lead to mental confusion and memory impairment. Remaining awake for too long during the day is an issue; however, one scientific study identifies the level of brain activity as the actual root of the problem. Therefore, it is not how long you are awake, it is how much you think that affects sleeping patterns.

Action Steps: Your doctor can address sleep habits and possible solutions. Pinpointing sleeping problems may take some time as there are many possible reasons for these to happen. You may be sleeping on an uncomfortable bed, trying to sleep in a too hot or too cold bedroom, experiencing high stress, snoring (and be awoken by your own snoring …), or suffering from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea and Alzheimer’s has been shown to be correlated. If snoring and sleep apnea are the culprits, your doctor can fit you for a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine.

Read: Fit at 50? Dementia Risk Low Among Very Fit Women

What is Dementia?

Dementia is not always part of aging. But what is dementia exactly?

Dementia is not a disease. Dementia is a general term to describe mental decline that interferes with functioning. Think of dementia as an umbrella term which describes a group of symptoms including problems with memory, reasoning, thinking, and remembering. Some people also experience behavioral problems. These symptoms interfere with daily function. Some types of dementia include:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Vascular dementia
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease with dementia
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Posterior cortical atrophy
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

The first four types of dementia listed above are the most common (and likely most familiar). Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is weaker than dementia and causes a slight but noticeable decline in cognitive ability. These symptoms may be noticed by the individual or family members. They include not remembering important events, conversations, or appointments. Thinking and communication skills may be affected. Problems with reasoning, sequencing, or complex problem-solving may occur. People diagnosed with MCI are at greater risk for developing dementia. If you or a family member have concerns about MCI, talk to your doctor about a further evaluation.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means it worsens over time. Those diagnosed under 65 have early-onset Alzheimer's. You can try to slow the progression of early-onset Alzheimer's by creating brain-healthy habits. There are some medications that can treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's and scientists have made some advances towards finding a cure. There is, however, currently no cure for this disease.

Read: What You Can Do About Dementia

The Genetic Component of Dementia

A common misconception is that Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are entirely hereditary. This concern about Alzheimer’s and genetics is understandable as children can inherit many similar genes from their parents (e.g. eye color, hair color, and height). When there is a family history of dementia, there is a chance this will be passed down from parents to children. However, the more frequent cause of dementia is old age.

With that said, however, some rarer forms of dementia could be passed down from parent to child. These would include young-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and Familial Prion disease. With these cases, it is more likely that the genes will be passed down from a father rather than a mother. Paternal genes are more dominant than maternal genes. Considering the rarity of these cases, it is more likely that if a father is tall, slim, and has brown hair, then at least one of his children will also share these same characteristics instead of dementia.

Can I get Tested for Alzheimer’s and Dementia?

Yes. But the process is more one of elimination rather than determination. Many primary physicians will administer The Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MOCA). The MOCA is a series of 30 questions. The average completion time is between 10 – 12 minutes. It assesses memory, attention, language, and abstraction. The test is not intended to diagnose any specific disease. It is used as a screening tool. Depending on the score, your physician may refer you, your spouse, or your parents for further evaluation. This may include but is not limited to:

  • Ruling out other conditions with lab tests.
  • Interviewing family and friends.
  • Testing neuropsychological systems.
  • Using brain imaging scans including a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and/or Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan. MRI scans will check for injured or unhealthy organs and tissue in your body. PET scans will show how the body is working (e.g. finding an infection or cancer).

Another test is the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE). The MOCA and the MMSE are similar. The latter is shorter (taking about eight minutes to complete). Both these tests can prove to be effective. Dementia can be a frightening prospect. Therefore, people hide their symptoms, or they may get an evaluation after the disease has progressed. Don’t wait or live in denial about dementia. Knowing sooner will give you and your family time to plan. Managing symptoms can improve quality of life.

Read: Can Eating Sugar Cause Dementia?

Strategies to Reduce Risk of Dementia

Any form of dementia can serve as a wake-up call with family caregivers often asking themselves, “Will I be affected as well and, if so, when?” The bad news is that, to-date, there is no proven cure for dementia. The good news is there are strategies to reduce dementia risk. And the process isn’t that difficult, nor do you need to make any dramatic lifestyle changes. Family caregivers can fight against dementia and may win the battle by living more healthily. Include exercise for both your body and mind. Eat more nutritious foods. Quit smoking. Reduce alcohol intake. Get more sleep. Engage socially. Laugh more.

Resources

Alzheimer's Association: What is Dementia

Read about our dementia care services and get help today.

About the Author(s)

Amanda Lambert is the owner and president of Lambert Care Management, LLC which provides care management for older and disabled adults. She is the co-author of, Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). She has worked for over 20 years in the senior-related industry including mental health, marketing and guardianship. She has a passion for topics related to health, wellness and resilience as we age.

As a former co-caregiver, Rick Lauber helped and supported his own aging parents. His mother had Parkinson's and Leukemia and his father had Alzheimer's. Rick learned that caregiving is challenging and used writing to personally cope.

His stories became two books, Caregiver's Guide for Canadians and The Successful Caregiver's Guide.

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