Is All Forgetfulness a Sign of Oncoming Dementia?

Senior woman sitting in living room in front of window, starting outside


People of all ages experience memory loss at times. And lapses in memory may become more frequent as we age. But being unable to recall the name of your neighbor when you meet her on your way to work in the morning doesn’t necessarily mean you’re developing Alzheimer’s disease.

If you or someone you love is experiencing memory issues, the first thing to do is see your doctor. A complete medical evaluation may uncover a treatable underlying cause for the patient’s symptoms. So it is important not to assume that confusion, memory loss and other personality changes inevitably signal dementia. Treatable causes may include:

Reactions to medication – Many drugs, on their own, may have a side effect of memory loss and include many innocuous medications taken by millions of Americans, such as Ambien, Lunesta, Xanax and Valium. Now add into the mix the fact that seniors are much more likely to be taking multiple medications – the typical 75-year-old takes more than 10 prescription drugs – and the risks for side effects increase. Overmedication is a cause for many misdiagnoses, including dementia. Tell your doctor what medications you’re taking and ask if this could be a cause of your memory loss.

Anxiety/stress – A study from the University of Iowa revealed that having high levels of cortisol – the hormone released when a person is under stress – can lead to memory lapses as we age. You can reduce the stress in your life through meditation, exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep.

Infections can also cause temporary memory loss. One of the most common among seniors is urinary tract infection (UTI). Some other symptoms of UTI include a change in behavior, confusion, a decreased appetite and depression. Once treatment is started, many patients see improvement in these symptoms within a few days.

Depression – Depression and dementia share many symptoms, such as forgetfulness and the inability to focus. The good news is that symptoms are often much improved with counseling, medication and lifestyle changes.

Thyroid disease – When the thyroid gland produces too little or too much thyroid hormone, memory loss and confusion may result. A simple blood test can reveal a thyroid disorder. Most types of thyroid disease are easily treatable.

Malnutrition As we age, our appetites may change for any number of reasons – a loss of a spouse may mean we’re eating alone, our aging taste buds can’t discern differences in flavor, or medications may make foods less tasty. This can result in seniors becoming malnourished, which can create symptoms of mental confusion, uncertainty and slowness. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet helps improve cognitive function, including memory and recall. Vitamin B-12 – which helps with normal nerve function – is an important nutrient in maintaining good brain health.

Dehydration – As we grow older, the mechanism in our brain that tells us we are thirsty sends out a weaker signal, so seniors may drink less water than is needed for good health. Some seniors try to limit fluid intake because of fear of incontinence or they are on a fluid-restricted diet because of a medical condition. Dehydration symptoms, including disorientation and lethargy, can be similar to those of dementia.

Memory loss is not a “natural part of growing older.” Geriatricians now recognize that dementia is part of a disease process. So if you’re experiencing symptoms, the first step is to rule out other, treatable conditions.

Categories: Senior Health