Sometimes you forget someone’s name, can’t find a certain word or can’t remember what you had for breakfast. We’ve all had some temporary lapses in memory, usually chalked up to being distracted or a “senior moment.” But when does becoming forgetful become a health concern?
The general term for changes in memory is dementia. It is not just a problem of memory, but a decline in cognition — the mental processes that help us not only remember but also to learn new things, communicate, make decisions, solve problems and interact socially with others.
Having memory loss alone doesn’t mean you have dementia. People with dementia can also have difficulty with one or more of the following, depending on the cause:
• Retaining new information, such as trouble remembering recent events
• Handling complex tasks, like balancing a checkbook and paying bills
• Reasoning, such as being unable to cope with unexpected events
• Awareness of location and distance — getting lost in familiar places or while driving
• Language, difficulty with word finding and stuttering
• Inappropriate behavior and personality changes
An important feature of dementia is that the symptoms represent a change from a person’s normal level of functioning and interferes with independence. Symptoms are often noticed first by family members, and most patients do not notice the symptoms themselves. As the change is gradual and gets worse over time, it may not be noticed right away, and by the time the patient has stopped driving or managing finances, the subtle but worsening symptoms have often been present for at least a few years.
The potential complications of progressive dementia are:
• Inability to perform
self-care tasks such as bathing, dressing, brushing teeth, and taking medications accurately
• Poor nutrition due to the inability to feed oneself properly
• Personal safety issues, including driving, cooking and walking alone
• Late-stage dementia can result in coma and death, often from infection
Dementia is caused by damage to or loss of nerve cells and their connections in the brain. This damage can be irreversible, but depending on the cause, some dementia symptoms may be reversible.
The most common form of dementia in adults above 60 years old is Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases, where clumps of protein creating plaques and tangles in the brain cause the damage. It should be suspected in patients with progressive decline in memory with other cognitive functions. Although not all causes of AD are known, a small percentage can be genetic and can be passed down from parent to child.
The second most common type is called vascular dementia, caused by damage to the vessels that supply blood to your brain. Blood vessel damage can cause a stroke, which occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced, preventing brain tissue from getting oxygen. The most common symptoms of vascular dementia include difficulties with problem-solving, slowed thinking, focus and organization.
Some conditions that cause dementia-like symptoms can be reversed with treatment and time. These conditions include trauma injuries, infections, thyroid problems, low blood sugar, electrolyte imbalances, dehydration and nutritional deficiencies.
Other causes are medication interactions, as well as chronic alcohol intake and sudden alcohol withdrawal. Another cause is sleep apnea — a potentially serious disorder where breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep, depriving the brain and other vital organs from getting enough oxygen.
Many factors can eventually contribute to dementia. Risk factors such as age and genetics can’t be changed, but those that can be managed include smoking and heavy alcohol use, lack of exercise, poor control of hypertension and diabetes, obesity, an unhealthy diet, nutritional deficiencies (such as folate, vitamins D, B6, and B12) and untreated sleep apnea.
There is no sure way to prevent dementia, but keeping your mind active with mentally stimulating activities such as reading, solving puzzles, playing word games and memory training might delay the onset of dementia and decrease its effects.
If you or a loved one has memory problems or other dementia symptoms, see your doctor. There is no single test that can diagnose dementia, and a number of tests might be necessary to help identify the cause. Be assured that some conditions can be reversed or treated, and there are therapies that can help with symptoms.