Memory Loss: What is it? When is it reversible? When to see a doctor.

Everyone forgets things from time to time be it why you went into a room, what you were getting ready to look up, or where you just laid something down. Random forgetfulness does not necessarily mean that you are on the verge of more severe memory loss. This blog will look at types of memory loss, when memory loss is potentially reversible, and when you should seek medical advice. Information in this blog came from The Mayo Clinic,  Medline Plus, National Institute on Aging, and WebMD.

Types of Memory Loss

Normal age-related memory loss does not prevent you from living a full, productive life. For example, you might occasionally forget a person’s name, but recall it later in the day. You might misplace your glasses sometimes. Or maybe you need to make lists more often than in the past to remember appointments or tasks.

These changes in memory are generally manageable and do not disrupt your ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.

Mild Cognitive Impairment: Some older adults have a condition called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, meaning they have more memory or other thinking problems than other people their age. People with MCI can usually take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but not everyone with MCI will develop Alzheimer’s.

Researchers and physicians are still learning about mild cognitive impairment. For many people, the condition eventually progresses to dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or another disorder causing dementia.

Other people’s memory loss does not progress much, and they do not develop the spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia.

If you have MCI, visit your doctor every six to 12 months to track changes in memory and other thinking skills over time. There may be habits and behaviors you can change and activities you can do to help you maintain memory and thinking skills.

Dementia: The word “dementia” is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms, including impairment in memory, reasoning, judgment, language, and other thinking skills. Dementia usually begins gradually, worsens over time, and impairs a person’s abilities in work, social interactions and relationships.

Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It includes the loss of cognitive functioning and behavioral abilities to the extent that it interferes with a person’s quality of life and activities. Memory loss, though common, is not the only sign of dementia. People with dementia may also have problems with language skills, visual perception, or paying attention. Some people have personality changes.

Common types of dementia are Lewy body dementia, Fronto-temporal dementia, Progressive supranuclear palsy, Normal pressure hydrocephalus, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (mad cow disease). Alzheimer’s disease, however, is the most common form in people over age 65. The chart below explains some differences between normal signs of aging and Alzheimer’s. (Chart was taken from the National Institute on Aging site. See link for further info)

Potentially 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 screen you for conditions that cause reversible memory impairment.

Possible causes of reversible memory loss include:

Medications. Certain medications or a combination of medications can cause forgetfulness or confusion. Possible culprits include antidepressants, antihistamines, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and pain medications given after surgery.

Minor head trauma or injury. A head injury from a fall or accident — even if you do not lose consciousness — can cause memory problems. Memory may gradually improve over time.

Emotional disorders. Stress, anxiety, or depression can cause forgetfulness, confusion, difficulty concentrating and other problems that disrupt daily activities. When you are tense and your mind is overstimulated or distracted, your ability to remember can suffer. Mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can also be at fault.

Alcoholism. Chronic alcoholism can seriously impair mental abilities. Alcohol can also cause memory loss by interacting with medications.

Vitamin B-12 deficiency. Vitamin B-12 helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells. A vitamin B-12 deficiency — common in older adults — can cause memory problems.

Hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism) can result in forgetfulness and other thinking problems.

Brain diseases. A tumor or infection in the brain can cause memory problems or other dementia-like symptoms.  Brain infections such as Lyme disease, syphilis, or HIV/AIDS or other diseases such as Parkinson disease, Huntington disease, or multiple sclerosis are included in this category and can also cause memory loss.

Stroke. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is stopped due to the blockage of a blood vessel to the brain or leakage of a vessel into the brain. Strokes often cause short-term memory loss. A person who has had a stroke may have vivid memories of childhood events but be unable to recall what they had for lunch.

When to Seek Medical Advice

If you, a family member, or friend has problems remembering recent events or thinking clearly, talk with a doctor. He or she may suggest a thorough checkup to see what might be causing the symptoms. You may also wish to talk with your doctor about opportunities to participate in research on cognitive health and aging.

Your doctor is likely to ask you questions. It is good to have a family member or friend along to answer some questions based on observations. Questions might include:

  • When did your memory problems begin?
  • What medications, including prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, and dietary supplements, do you take and in what doses?
  • Have you recently started a new drug?
  • What tasks do you find difficult?
  • What have you done to cope with memory problems?
  • How much alcohol do you drink?
  • Have you recently been in an accident, fallen or injured your head?
  • Have you recently been sick?
  • Do you feel sad, depressed, or anxious?
  • Have you recently had a major loss, a major change or stressful event in your life?

In addition to a general physical exam, your doctor will likely conduct question-and-answer tests to judge your memory and other thinking skills. He or she may also order blood tests and brain-imaging tests that can help identify reversible causes of memory problems and dementia-like symptoms.

You might be referred to a specialist in diagnosing dementia or memory disorders, such as a neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or geriatrician.

Finding the cause of the problems is important for determining the best course of action. Once you know the cause, you can make the right treatment plan. People with memory problems should make a follow-up appointment to check their memory every six to 12 months. They can ask a family member, friend, or the doctor’s office to remind them if they’re worried they’ll forget.

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