Some memory loss is a normal part of aging
By: Kenneth Ripp, M.D.
Everyone has the occasional memory lapse. You might be looking everywhere for your lost glasses when your husband points out that they are on top of your head. You are talking on the phone and know what you want to say, but can’t come up with the right word. Or, you walk purposely into the kitchen, only to arrive there and wonder, “What was it that I was going to do in here?”
Moments of forgetfulness can be disconcerting. But, for most of us, they are a sign that we are very busy, over-stressed or over-worked, and not symptoms of an underlying disease, like Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia.
Some amount of forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, in fact over half of people over 65 experience some age-related forgetfulness. For instance, forgetting the names of people that you rarely see, or those that you just met, occasionally misplacing something, forgetting where you parked the car and minor difficulties with word retrieval are all symptoms of normal forgetfulness.
So, how does a person differentiate normal forgetfulness from something more serious, like Alzheimer’s disease? The difference between normal memory loss and Alzheimer’s is that with Alzheimer’s (and other types of dementia) the memory loss occurs with regularity and increases over time.
Memory problems become serious when they affect your daily living. Alzheimer’s symptoms progress from mild to severe – usually over the course of several years.
Alzheimer’s affects memory and other facets of daily life. It is characterized by:
Short-term memory loss. People may be able to remember things from long ago, but are unable to recall recent events. For instance, someone might remember a birthday party from childhood, but not know whether she has eaten lunch.
Repetition. Repeating the same story or asking the same question over and over during one conversation is a sign of dementia, as is telling the same story many times over the course of days or weeks.
Language problems. As Alzheimer’s progresses, a person has more difficulty finding words and putting them together to form verbal speech. Their ability to communicate is severely limited. They may become frustrated when they can’t find the words to describe what they are trying to say.
Personality changes. Mood swings, anger, crying and paranoia can all accompany the disease. People may have hallucinations or delusions as symptoms move from mild to moderate.
Confusion and inability to perform familiar tasks. Symptoms may start with someone not being able to balance a checkbook or follow a recipe. A person may get lost on the way to a familiar location and forget the rules to a favorite card game. Later, they may forget the date, their address and phone number. Hygiene can become an issue for many people with dementia as confusion creates an inability to perform daily living tasks – bathing, brushing teeth, combing hair, using the bathroom, etc.
Confusion recognizing familiar people. A person with Alzheimer’s may have trouble identifying family members and friends. They may get people mixed up. For instance a mother may think her daughter is her sister; or her grand daughter is her niece. As the disease progress a husband may not recognize his wife.
There is no definitive test for Alzheimer’s. If you see symptoms in a loved one, the best thing to do is to seek advice from a medical professional. A doctor can perform certain tests to come up with a diagnosis. There are other medical conditions that can cause a person to exhibit some of the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some of these – such as a vitamin deficiency, thyroid problems, depression, drug interactions and alcohol abuse are treatable, so it is important to seek medical attention quickly.
If symptoms do indicate Alzheimer’s disease, it is still better to seek attention sooner rather than later. Treatment is more effective when the disease is in its early stages. Certain drugs that can slow down the development of Alzheimer’s symptoms work best when started early.
Some memory loss is a normal part of aging. And, even when memory loss increases over time, there is a chance that it may be caused by a treatable condition. Sometimes, memory loss indicates Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia. While not curable, Alzheimer’s is treatable. Working with a physician, early on, to implement life style changes, memory-supportive activities and to find the right medications can delay many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. This can help you or your loved one to maintain independence and have and increased quality of life for a longer period of time.
Dr. Ripp is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.