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We all forget sometimes, and its normal to forget things a bit more frequently as we get older. As we age, we may notice it can take us longer to learn new things, we may lose things more frequently, or we may have more trouble remembering the names of people. How can we know if forgetting is typical aging or a sign of something more serious?
Research has helped medical professionals better distinguish between ordinary forgetfulness and potentially serious memory issues.
Potential reasons for memory loss
There are various potential reasons for memory loss and not all of them are dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Other reasons for memory loss include:
Stressful life events
Experiencing emotional problems such as stress, anxiety or depression can make a person more forgetful. A serious life change such as the death of a loved one, moving to a new home, or retirement can cause extreme stress. Coping with these changes can lead to forgetting things or feeling confused. It’s important to seek support from family, friends, or a therapist to help ease these transitions. If the confusion or forgetting continues for more than two weeks, it’s recommended to visit a doctor.
Medications and medical conditions
Some medical conditions contribute to memory problems. Medical conditions that may cause memory loss include head injuries, alcohol abuse, thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders, tumors, blood clots, infections in the brain, or vitamin deficiency such as B12 deficiency. It’s also not unusual for side effects of some medications to cause memory problems. It’s important to see a doctor to treat these conditions and identify possible medication side effects. Often, treating these conditions helps the memory problems decrease.
How do we know we’re more forgetful?
Someone who is experiencing increased forgetfulness may not recognize the changes in their memory. One way to recognize memory loss is by establishing a personal baseline of what sorts of things we are naturally interested in or good at. Someone who worked professionally as an accountant and has a long-time interest in mathematics, for example, may have an established way of tracking their personal finances. If this person begins to have trouble balancing their checkbook, this could be a sign of potential changes in their brain health. We can share our idea of our personal baselines with others who are close to us, and ask them to pay attention if they notice a change in these established patterns.
What should we do if we suspect potential memory loss in another person?
Sometimes, a relative or friend will ask for help. However, if you do not have regular, close contact with the person, it may be harder to identify potential memory loss. If you have the person’s permission, you could contact other people and ask them to look for any possible concerns - for instance, neighbors, close friends, or doctors. If you visit them, look around their home for any potentially dangerous circumstances or clues to help identify their mood and general health status.
Sometimes, a person with memory issues may have a person or caregiver who is very close to them, but does not recognize the symptoms. It can be very difficult for a caregiver or partner to acknowledge their loved one’s health situation. If you need to broach the topic with the caregiver, try bringing up a specific issue rather than raising the possibility of dementia. For instance, if you notice a worrying change that could be a safety issue, try to talk about that issue. For example, you could say, “I notice that your doors are often left unlocked or open,” or “I notice there are not a lot of groceries in the house.” Try to follow your concern with practical help and specific suggestions of what you can do. For example, you might arrange to have a personal or home health aide come in once a week. You might schedule doctors’ appointments or arrange for their transportation to the clinic. Ask if they know who they can call if they do have questions or concerns about memory loss. If you feel the situation is truly unsafe, it’s important to find help for them.
People who are worried about their memory should see a doctor. The doctor might conduct a physical and mental health evaluation to reach a diagnosis. Often, these evaluations are conducted by a geriatrician, neurologist, and neuropsychologists, all of whom can specialize in problems related to the brain and central nervous system.
For some older people, memory problems are a sign of MCI, Alzheimer’s disease, or another form of dementia. Memory problems could also be temporary or caused by a treatable medical condition. In all cases, an early diagnosis of dementia is extremely important for the person’s future health. A complete medical exam for memory loss will examine the person’s medical and family history and will include a physical exam and neurological tests to assess memory, balance, language, and other brain functions. A close friend or caregiver will be asked to be present to help provide background information.