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Primer on Memory Loss & Related Conditions


Do you wonder if your loved one is experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease? Forgetfulness often accompanies aging in some form or other, so it’s common to miss some of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease or other diseases that cause dementia and brain decline. For seniors who are being treated for other conditions, including mental health conditions, it’s even more difficult to notice the initial signs of memory-related conditions.

Many people wonder what’s considered common forgetfulness in seniors, and what’s a cause for concern. It’s common to sometimes forget the name of a book or a movie, or even the name of an old friend. Everybody misplaces a set of keys or phone once in awhile. However, experts say that losing important things more than once a month could be a sign for concern. Losing a sense of direction is another common cause for concern. Another thing to pay attention to is how well your loved one is able to follow conversations. It’s not typical to be in the middle of a conversation and forget where you are or who you’re talking to. Age-related cognitive decline could be the issue here, or it could progress into something more serious, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The most common types of diseases that cause dementia-like symptoms are:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Lewy body dementia
  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia

Co-Occurring Conditions and Memory

Memory problems and bouts of unusual forgetfulness can be a temporary problem caused by something else. Depression, certain medications, acute stress or grieving, or mental health conditions may limit cognitive functioning (causing it to look like someone is losing their memory), but they do not cause Alzheimer’s disease or related conditions. When a depressive cycle has passed, or medications are altered, cognitive functioning may return to previous levels.

Conditions that Could Make Memory and Mental Functioning Temporarily Worse

  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Grieving
  • Mental health issues
  • Certain medications
  • Alcohol use or abuse
  • Vitamin deficiencies (most commonly Vitamin B12)
  • Vision loss
  • Hearing problems
  • Thyroid problems
  • Dehydration

Mental health conditions like depression, acute stress, PTSD, grieving, or existing (sometimes undiagnosed) health conditions can make someone with a good memory look like they’re in the early stages of dementia. Something as simple as dehydration (which is common in the elderly) can create mental fog and forgetfulness that can be easily confused with dementia.

Several studies show that hearing loss is associated with memory impairment in seniors. * Note that the studies do not demonstrate that hearing loss causes memory loss, but just that the two conditions seem to be somehow related. In a 2013 study, participants who began a 6-year study with hearing loss were more likely to develop symptoms of cognitive decline than participants with no hearing loss at the beginning of the study, regardless of initial age at the beginning of the study. For this reason, some have speculated that providing seniors with appropriate hearing aides could possibly delay some cognitive decline, although at this point this is a theory and has not been clinically tested.

When to Know if Forgetfulness is Something Else

One of the key indicators between memory-related conditions your loved one needs treatment for, and common age-related forgetfulness, is whether or not the condition interferes with everyday life. If your loved one is still caring for himself or herself and is able to cook meals, shop, wash up, and make it to social events and doctor appointments, then it isn’t a cause for concern. But if bills are frequently going unpaid, shopping never gets done, they often forget common words, and it’s hard for him or her to follow directions (like a familiar recipe) anymore, then it’s time to have your loved one checked out.

One of the common symptoms of dementia is misplacing items frequently or putting things in unexpected places, like placing a purse in the bathtub or the car keys in a cereal box. Sometimes, when this occurs, the person may become extremely agitated or may accuse others of hiding or stealing their possessions. Other warning signs for dementia include the following: your loved one gets lost while driving or walking in their own neighborhood, your loved one repeats questions frequently, your loved one struggles with making planning or making decisions much more than they used to, or your loved one has difficulty paying for purchases and handling money.

Many people with memory problems do not ever develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Part of the stress is fearing something but not knowing the answers. If you would like to come in for an assessment, or bring in a family member, please contact Dallas Behavioral to schedule an appointment.

*For more details, see the February 25, 2013 report published in JAMA Internal Medicine.