In a talk I recently gave on healthy aging and brain disease, a concerned woman asked if having bouts of short-term memory loss meant that it was Alzheimer’s disease. With the increasing notoriety and prevalence of the disease, her concerns were understandable. Many have asked similar questions.
Answering her, and for others: short-term memory loss does not universally mean Alzheimer’s disease. Ten percent of dementias are reversible, so it is important to get a check-up. Memory loss can be a symptom of many things. In fact, memory loss can even be a symptom of nothing. As we age, there is normal memory loss. What differentiates normal from abnormal is whether the memory loss causes interference with our day-to-day living. Examples of normal memory loss would be forgetting where you put your car keys, or walking into a room and forgetting why you went in to it, only later to retrace your steps and find your car keys or recall why you went in to the room. These lost memories are traceable and come back. Finding yourself disoriented in a familiar place and not remembering how you got there, or why, would be something entirely different.
If memory issues are impacting your life, the guiding principle is the same as with any medical concern: see a qualified doctor and get examined. Any general practitioner can do a memory screening and if there are signs of significant memory impairment, a referral to a specialist with extensive knowledge in dementia should be consulted.
Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor if he/she has an education in dementia and gerontology. Wanting to understand your physician’s credentials is neither insulting nor disrespectful. It is practical. Doctors are sometimes looked upon as super-human, and indeed doctors are blessings in immeasurable ways, but they too are human. They can make mistakes, and/or not have enough experience in specific body ailments. Ask any questions you need to ask.
Similarly, don’t be shy in sharing your history and medical details. The more information your doctor has, the more prepared he or she will be to assess what’s wrong, if anything. Before the appointment I find it is a good practice to write down all of your concerns, symptoms, medication usage and prior events before the memory lapse (i.e. a previous surgery, taking new medications, experiencing high levels of stress, dealing with major transitions, etc). Doctors' offices can sometimes be overwhelming. Being prepared in advance reduces the chance of forgetting something while in that stressful environment.
Again, don’t be shy in speaking up; after all, this is your health and your life.
Here are some warning signs that could indicate more serious issues and should be addressed:
- Difficulty remembering important dates or events; asking for the same information over and over
- Difficulty remembering a familiar recipe, chore or keeping track of monthly bills that were once independently maintained without problems
- Difficulty driving or walking to a familiar location, managing a budget or remembering the rules of a favorite game
- Difficulty following or joining a conversation and struggling with vocabulary (i.e. retrieving the right word or call things by the wrong name)
- Often misplacing things and unable to retrace the steps to locate items,
- On-going changes in judgment or decision-making (i.e. giving personal bank account information to scam solicitors)
- Trouble keeping up with hobbies and withdrawing from social events
- On-going changes in mood and personality