Forgetting a phone number, misplacing your keys, or not remembering a name happens to just about everyone. Memory lapses related to aging are often the result of benign conditions; however, it is crucial to differentiate between what is normal and what may indicate a serious cognitive deficit.
According to Help Guide, the following types of forgetfulness are considered normal among senior citizens, and are not considered early manifestations or warning signs of cognitive decline or dementia:
- Occasionally forgetting where you put certain items that you use on a regular basis such as your eyeglasses or keys
- Entering a room and forgetting why you have entered it
- Difficulty remembering details of a story or conversation
- Sometimes forgetting a scheduled appointment
- Becoming distracted easily
- Forgetting the names of people you know
While the above types of forgetting are considered normal in most cases, if they are accompanied by confusion, severe cognitive deficits or the inability to recognize family members or close friends, a medical examination is in order.
Causes Of Age-Related Memory Loss
A study conducted at The University of Iowa found that there may be a link between short-term memory loss among seniors and stress hormones. When you are under stress, a natural hormone produced by your body known as cortisol rises, and as you age, elevations in cortisol may lead to lapses in memory. Cortisol is essential for survival as it helps promote critical thinking and alertness.
As you get older, however, persistent elevated levels in this hormone can have detrimental consequences on your body causing anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, hypertension and memory loss. If you or an elderly loved one is anxious, talk to a physician to determine how to better manage stress so that cortisol spikes will be less likely to negatively impact your memory.
Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, causes mild but noticeable declines in an elderly person's cognitive abilities. It causes a decline in thinking skills and memory, and if you have MCI, you may be at a greater risk for developing Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association. There are two types of MCI:
- Amnestic MCI is where a person may show symptoms of forgetting appointments, pertinent information or recent events.
- The other type of MCI is known as nonamnestic MCI. If you or a loved one has this type of MCI, thinking skills and the ability to make decisions may be affected. You may also lose your ability to effectively judge time, complete certain tasks or notice diminished visual perception.
The Alzheimer's Association further notes that while there are no approved medications to treat MCI, regular exercise may help enhance your heart and blood vessels, including the ones that provide your brain with nourishment. Other things that may improve brain function include staying socially active and participating in activities that stimulate your brain.
Dementia is another condition that may promote memory loss in seniors. According to the Mayo Clinic, dementia is a term that is often used when referring to certain symptoms such as deficits in memory, judgement, reasoning, language and other various cognitive skills. It typically begins gradually, however, over time, it can worsen and significantly impair an individual's cognitive ability. Mayo Clinic also explains that memory loss is often the first sign of dementia. Other signs of dementia may include:
- Forgetting words when talking
- Repeatedly asking the same questions
- Confusing one word for another
- Getting lost in familiar surroundings
- Inability to follow simple directions
- Difficulty with familiar tasks
Memory loss in seniors may also be caused by Alzheimer's disease. If you notice that you or one of your parents has memory loss that is progressively getting worse over time instead of staying the same, make an appointment with the doctor. This is especially important if the memory loss is accompanied by sudden changes in behavior or mood, or placing items in unusual places, such as putting a purse in the freezer. According to Oregon Health & Science University, the following questions should be asked to the physician regarding memory loss:
- Is the memory loss related to the aging process, or is it symptomatic of a more serious condition?
- What type of medical testing is suggested?
- Does the patient need to see a specialist, and if so, will insurance cover the cost?
- Is the memory loss temporary or long term?
- What are some other causes besides Alzheimer's for memory loss?
If you or your loved one is suffering from memory loss that is related to Alzheimer's, existing cognitive deficits are generally not reversible, however, certain prescription medications such as Aricept may help slow the progression of the disease. A comprehensive medical examination can help determine the cause of the memory loss, and the faster the underlying cause is recognized and treated, the quicker an effective treatment plan can be implemented.
Seeking Treatment to Live Better
While there are no strategies to guarantee that a senior will not experience memory loss, there are a number of highly effective treatment methods that can help preserve cognitive health. It is important that you or your loved one work with a physician or mental health professional to determine which treatment option is best suited to help manage your individual situation. Despite alterations in cognitive function, you can still live a meaningful, happy and active lifestyle when the cause of your memory deficit has been recognized and treated appropriately.