Memory loss is often considered just a part of aging. For some seniors, occasionally being “forgetful” is annoying and frustrating, but it’s manageable. For others, it’s a sign that there may be something serious going on. Because memory loss can have many causes, it’s important to understand what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to the many faces of memory loss in seniors.
Normal versus abnormal memory loss
Even as early as our 40s and 50s, most people realize they are experiencing forgetfulness once in a while. Misplacing car keys or cell phones, forgetting someone’s name or losing your train of thought are among the many common things that plague us as we age. Most people just take it in stride, and find ways to keep it from becoming troublesome.
The difference appears when forgetfulness becomes chronic and even escalates. For example, driving to a regular appointment and not being able to remember the route, or getting lost coming home from a familiar place like the grocery store. Other signs include repeatedly being unable to find the right word or using words that simply don’t fit what you mean to say.
The key is that when forgetfulness becomes memory loss, it can not only be disruptive to everyday life, but even dangerous for seniors. Learn more about the differences between forgetfulness and memory loss in the National Institute on Aging’s article, “Forgetfulness: Normal or Not?”
Memory loss: what’s what?
Because memory loss can have many causes and names, understanding what’s what can help seniors allay fears and get appropriate help. First and foremost, seniors who are struggling with memory problems, should always talk to their physician who can best determine if it’s a medical condition of concern or not. Some of the most common types of memory loss include:
- Mild cognitive impairment — When a senior experiences more than occasional forgetfulness, it may be considered mild cognitive impairment or MCI. According to the Mayo Clinic, MCI “is the stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia.” Because MCI is thought to be caused by the same changes in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia, it should be addressed immediately by medical professionals. But MCI can also improve over time, so there is no absolute link to other conditions. Find out more in the Mayo Clinic article, “Mild cognitive impairment (MCI).”
- Dementia — In a diagnosis, the word “dementia” can be devastating to seniors and their families. But dementia is really an umbrella term for many types of cognitive dysfunction including memory loss, thinking and reasoning. Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia all fall under the umbrella of dementia. But, dementia is not considered a normal part of getting older, so many people live well into their 80s and 90s or beyond and never exhibit signs of the condition.
It’s also important to understand that dementia-like symptoms can occur because of certain medications, mental health problems like depression and anxiety, and other brain conditions such as Huntington’s disease and traumatic injury to the brain. To better understand dementia, the NIA article, “What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis” is an excellent resource.
- Alzheimer’s disease — One of the most devastating memory loss diagnoses is that of Alzheimer’s disease, which is also the most common. A progressive disease, the risk of Alzheimer’s disease increases with age, but early-onset Alzheimer’s disease can be diagnosed in people under 65 years of age. The disease begins to change the brain well before symptoms appear, which are the result of changes to the brain that experts are still trying to understand, but include brain plaques, tangles and inflammation. There are a number of risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease in addition to age, including family history, genetics, head injuries, and cardio-vascular disease. For an in-depth look at Alzheimer’s disease, read the Alzheimer’s Association’s article, “Causes and Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease.”
- Parkinson’s and other diseases and conditions — There are several diseases and conditions that can cause dementia symptoms including, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Korsakoff Syndrome, Lewy body dementia, and Down syndrome. Each is unique although some share symptoms and causes such as muscle and coordination problems, genetic risk factors, and of course cognitive problems including memory loss.
- Head injuries and brain tumors — When searching for causes of memory loss, head injuries and brain tumors are also known culprits. A traumatic brain injury can cause short-term amnesia or memory loss (and may be implicated in Alzheimer’s disease) and can also impact “prospective memory,” which according to the msktc.org factsheet, “Memory and Traumatic Brain Injury,” is “remembering to remember.” Brain tumors can also cause memory loss as can treatment for a brain tumor such as chemotherapy and radiation. Learn more in the cancer.gov article, “Memory or Concentration Problems and Cancer Treatment.”
- Anesthesia — Older adults who undergo anesthesia for a medical procedure like surgery often experience temporary memory loss and anesthesia may also increase memory loss in patients who have dementia prior to receiving anesthesia. More about the impact of anesthesia on memory can be found in the healthline.com article, “Going Under Anesthesia May Impact Your Memory.”
For more detailed information about the many faces of memory loss, the alzheimers.org article, “Types of Dementia” is a great resource.
At North Chandler Place, our memory care services include a safe and secure environment as well as daily care tailored to the unique needs of each individual resident. For more information, download our “Just the Facts Guide: Memory Care.” To learn more about memory care at North Chandler Place, contact us today.