Are you or someone you care about misplacing objects and unable to retrace the steps to find them? Is it difficult to make simple meals you’ve made hundreds of times before? Do friends or relatives complain that they’ve already answered the question you just asked? Are you becoming more forgetful, for example repeatedly forgetting important appointments or other commitments you have made? This type of forgetfulness is oftentimes associated with Dementia, however it could actually be a sign of:
- Normal Age-Related Memory Loss
- Mild Cognitive Impairment
- A result of Bipolar Disorder or Depression
- Side effects caused by medication
- Underlying medical conditions
Aging and the different types of memory loss or signs of dementia can be confusing. Don’t let concerns about memory loss tangle your mind in your golden years.
Normal Age Related Memory Loss
Just as we physically slow down through the years, so do our minds. As we age, our brains don’t work as fast to learn new information or retrieve the old information we have stored in our memory banks. General forgetfulness is common in older adults. However, if you give yourself a few moments, the information should eventually come to mind. You may start to describe a book you are reading and then suddenly forget the title. You may walk outside to your car only to forget where you were headed. These age-related mishaps in memory can be frustrating but should not be a cause for alarm.
Dementia is not a specific disease but rather a group of symptoms. These symptoms generally include memory loss, personality changes and impaired reasoning. One in three people over 65 will develop dementia. Dementia usually affects those over the age of 60 but it is not a normal part of aging.
Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or a series of small strokes. It can be associated with other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or Down’s Syndrome. Risk factors, besides age, include infectious diseases (for example HIV and syphilis), vascular (blood vessel) disease, depression, and chronic drug or alcohol abuse.
Dementia is often progressive, which means the symptoms will gradually get worse. However, some types of dementia – approximately 20% – are reversible. The most common types of reversible dementias are depression, the adverse effects of certain prescription or nonprescription drugs, drug or alcohol abuse, brain tumor, and metabolic and hormone conditions like hypothyroidism, and nutritional conditions like vitamin B-12 deficiency. Depression is by far the most common of the potentially reversible conditions. For more information on dementia, please click here.
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) is a brain impairment with a degree of severity that lies between normal memory lapses and dementia. It is usually an intermediate stage between the expected mental decline of normal aging and the more-serious decline of dementia. Not only memory is affected though- it can also involve problems with language, thinking, and judgment. The diagnosis of MCI relies on the fact that the individual is still able to perform all of their usual daily activities.
Cognitive Impairment in Bipolar Disorder and Depression
Memory loss can also co-occur with major mood disorders. For instance, in bipolar patients who experience depression and mania, research has shown that there are lapses in recalling a specific event in the past – such as a birthday celebration or concert. This deficit applies to the person’s unique experience of the event. In addition, working memory – a function of the brain that processes and manipulates short-term memories – can also be impaired. In contrast, depressed patients, with no manic episodes, may experience memory loss in recalling specific events in the past. Depression can predispose to signs of memory loss, making it hard for you to concentrate, stay organized, remember, and get things done. [i]
Delirium vs. Dementia
According to the Mayo Clinic, “delirium is a serious disturbance in mental abilities that results in confused thinking and reduced awareness of your environment.” Delirium is typically caused by severe physical illness or toxic drugs, and has a rapid onset. Delirium is often reversible while dementia typically has a slower onset, and is generally irreversible. Because symptoms of delirium and dementia can be similar, a careful history of symptom onset and progression from a family member or caregiver may be important for a doctor to make an accurate diagnosis.
What to Do Next
The good news is that, with proper diagnosis and treatment, in many instances these worrisome symptoms can be reversed, or at least prevented from rapidly progressing. Seek help to differentiate between the various stages and types of memory loss to see if you need to take action. Feel free to reach out to us at Potomac Psychiatry for more information.
In part two of this series, we will cover the most common signs to look for that may signify that your loved one has Alzheimer’s and/or other types of dementia, and the role of poor nutrition, repeat concussion, chronic depression, and genetics in predisposing to developing dementia
[i] Cognitive Impairments in Major Depression and Bipolar Disorders. Philip D. Harvey, Psychiatry 2007 Jan; 4(1): 12–14. Published online 2007 Jan. PMCID: PMC2922383. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2922383/
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