Should I Be Worried About My Memory?

Older man consulting with his doctor

What's your greatest fear about growing older? When asked this question, many people respond, "Losing my memory."

This is a fear based on reality. Alzheimer's disease, the effects of a stroke, or other types of dementia can rob us of our ability to be independent as we grow older. Especially if our parent or other close relative has had dementia, we can't be faulted for being hypervigilant about our own memory.

Yet it's important to know that serious memory loss is not inevitable in our later years. Forgetting where you left the car keys, struggling to remember the name of a famous actress in a film you're watching, or briefly forgetting why you came into a room … these so-called "senior moments" are more common as we grow older, and are most likely due to normal changes in the brain.

Our memory does change with age. We don't retain as many memories from day to day, and it takes a bit longer to access those we do have. When we're young, memories seem to just pop up; as we grow older, we might be aware of a split second of "processing" before we access the memory. Some experts have used the analogy of a computer's hard drive; the more "data" our brains contain, the longer it takes to access it. On the other hand, older brains often have an increase of that quality called "wisdom," meaning we are able to make better use of the information we've accumulated.

The role of forgetting

Normal forgetting isn't a bad thing, explain neurologists. An intriguing 2017 study from the Scripps Research Institute shed light on the process. Ron Davis, Ph.D., who is co-chair of the institute's neuroscience department, led a study to learn about the complex cellular processes that remove memories. He explains, "Important memories like the taste of Mom's pumpkin pie might be forever retained, but trivialities like what you wore 10 years ago can fade into oblivion without consequence."

How does it work? Explains Davis, "The idea is, constantly as we learn information, there is a slow process that whittles away memories, and it continues whittling them away unless another part of the brain signals the memory is important and overrides it." And this is a good thing. Says Davis, "If you have too much memory that is old and unnecessary, why keep it around? Why shouldn’t you have a system for removing those for optimal function of the brain? We're getting all this information, all this learning during the day, and the brain may be saying, 'No, no, bring me back to my basal, my happy state.'"

But some memory changes are not a normal part of aging. Here are some symptoms you should report to your healthcare provider:

  • Feeling confused more often than usual
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Forgetting a recent conversation or repeating things
  • Trouble managing finances
  • Memory problems that affect your work or other regular activities

If a person has early-stage Alzheimer's disease or other dementia, early diagnosis and treatment may slow the progression. Certain subtle changes in thinking (mild cognitive impairment, or MCI) or behavior (mild behavioral impairment, or MBI) should be monitored; these could progress to Alzheimer's disease, but often do not.

And remember, Alzheimer's disease and dementia are far from the only things that cause memory loss. Other common causes can often be treated, so why wait and worry? These include:

Medication side effects and interactions. Alone or together, a number of common medications can cause confusion. These include drugs seniors take for pain, sleep problems, heart disease, anxiety and incontinence.

Depression. Depression and dementia share many symptoms, such as forgetfulness and the inability to focus.

Delirium. An infection, illness or — most commonly — a hospitalization can cause delirium, which is a sudden, temporary change in thinking and function marked by confusion, delusions and hallucinations. It is usually, but not always, short-term.

Urinary tract infections. Bladder and kidney infections are often overlooked in older adults, because seniors rarely have the pain and high fever that younger patients experience. Instead, these infections can cause sudden confusion, memory loss and even hallucinations.

Vitamin deficiencies. As we grow older, our bodies may have trouble absorbing certain nutrients, most notably vitamins B3 and B12. This can cause symptoms of mental confusion, uncertainty and slowness.

Dehydration. Our thirst mechanism works less well as we age, so we might forget to drink enough water, leading to lethargy and disorientation. Seniors who are on a restricted fluid diet should discuss this with their healthcare provider.

Sleep disorders. Our brains consolidate memories when we sleep, so if we have insomnia, sleep apnea or some other sleep problem, we won't remember things as well.

Stress. When we're worried about something, it's a lot harder to remember things. Especially if we're multitasking, we may forget whole blocks of time — we're doing things on "autopilot" that we don't remember later.

Alcohol abuse. Some of the symptoms associated with alcoholism are very similar to those of dementia. Chronic alcohol abuse can cause temporary or permanent brain damage, including memory loss and confusion. 

Thyroid disease. Too little or too much thyroid hormone can cause memory loss and confusion.

Head injury. Sometimes a seemingly minor fall or other injury can cause damage or bleeding in the brain, leading to memory loss, confusion or slurred speech. Especially in older adults, diagnosis can be tricky because the symptoms may take a while to appear.

This is far from a complete list of treatable conditions that can cause memory loss. Prompt evaluation, diagnosis and treatment can reverse the problem — although it's important to know that certain of these causes, such as delirium, stress, depression, and alcohol abuse, can raise the risk of dementia. It's important to deal with them right away.

And if the doctor does suspect Alzheimer's disease or another condition, early diagnosis allows for the best treatment and lifestyle choices that could delay the progression of the disease.

Give your brain a little exercise with the "Resolve to Protect Your Memory in 2018" puzzle, in this issue.

Source: Kentuckiana Regional Planning & Development Agency (KIPDA) in association with IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017 IlluminAge