Memory loss is common among older adults and has a few causes

When is memory loss more serious than normal aging?

It’s common for people as they get older to experience some difficulty with memory — such things as forgetting a birthday or misplacing car keys. But what if it is persistent? What causes memory loss and forgetfulness?

Memory issues in older adults, particularly in their 60s and 70s, are often seen as a normal component of aging. But where simple forgetfulness might indicate preoccupation or a lack of focus, continuing issues with memory loss can be a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

“Sometimes it takes some extra time to remember a name or a word in a conversation,” said Rachel N. Hart, D.O., a geriatric medicine specialist with Norton Neuroscience Institute Memory Center. “Usually these changes are not a threat to how you go about your daily life.”

Coming to terms with memory loss and the possible onset of a more serious condition can be difficult. Getting a prompt diagnosis from a doctor is key in determining if further testing is required.

Memory loss and dementia

While forgetfulness and short-term memory loss are common signs of aging, dementia is not. Dementia is a progressive and permanent condition. It affects overall cognitive function, including remembering facts or experiences, learning new skills or facts and reasoning skills. It also includes behavior, focus and language. Diseases involve progressive damage to the brain and can be causes of memory loss and forgetfulness include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia 
  • A combination of the above, which is called mixed dementia

Dementia includes not only memory loss but difficulties with cognition and the ability to carry on one’s life and daily activities. Early signs of dementia often will include:

  • Issues with language skills
  • Difficulty paying attention or completing a task
  • Irritability or changes in personality
  • Disorientation while walking or driving in a familiar area
  • Asking the same questions repeatedly
  • Continually misplacing items
  • Short-term memory loss that gets worse

Reversible causes of memory loss and forgetfulness

There are some reversible causes of memory loss, including:

  • Brain illness and injury such as concussion, blot clots, tumor or infection
  • Medication side effects
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety
  • Alcohol or drug misuse
  • Poor or inadequate sleep, including sleep apnea 
  • Low levels of important nutrients, such as vitamin B12
  • High levels of stress

A study has shown a link between caffeine consumption and memory loss. High levels of caffeine have been shown to increase the risk of dementia by 53%.

Mild cognitive impairment 

This condition has symptoms that are not as severe as Alzheimer’s or other kinds of dementia. People with mild cognitive impairment usually can perform their daily activities and take care of themselves. Sometimes this condition can get better on its own or progress more slowly if the cause is a reversible one. 

When to see your doctor about memory loss

When ongoing memory loss and forgetfulness require medical attention, your health care provider may ask a simple set of questions in order to assess the severity of the impairment. The questions might touch on the onset of the symptoms, the type of tasks that seem difficult, whether you’ve started any new drug, or if a recent head injury or other trauma may have occurred.

Further blood and brain-image testing also may be required in order to give an accurate diagnosis, develop a care plan and provide support.

Memory issues can be frustrating and sometimes scary. If you or a loved one is experiencing any type of cognitive impairment, short-term memory loss that seems to be constant or getting worse, symptoms of Alzheimer’s, dementia or other memory issue, or if you have other constant or worsening memory or cognitive decline, call your doctor’s office and schedule a checkup.

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