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Age-Related Memory Loss: Is It Forgetfulness or Dementia?

Elderly woman wonders if her age related memory loss is forgetfulness or dementia

Forgetfulness can be a common symptom of aging, but it’s not necessarily a warning sign of dementia. It’s the combination of memory loss and function loss that could be a red flag.

“As you grow older, it's natural to become a little more forgetful and that degree of forgetfulness varies from person to person. So, I think the question you need to ask is what are you forgetting?” said Mithil Choksey MD, medical director for the Division of Geriatrics at Bridgeport Hospital.

For example, if you are using the telephone and forget a phone number, that shouldn’t disrupt your daily activities. If you forget how to use the phone, that’s a loss of function. Other examples include having difficulty remembering the names of commonly used objects, close family members or good friends.

Symptoms of dementia

Dementia is an overarching term used to describe the combination of memory and function loss. One of the most common types of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease which is due to abnormal proteins in the brain and is predominantly associated with short term memory loss.

Other types of dementia may impact other parts of the brain, therefore resulting in additional symptoms such as behavioral disturbances, or becoming more disinhibited. For example, Lewy body dementia can present with tremors and hallucinations.

Dr. Choksey says a common misconception is that everyone will develop dementia as they age. While age is a risk factor, there are others including recurrent brain injuries, heavy alcohol use, underlying medical conditions, especially related to the heart and genetics. Poor diet, lack of aerobic exercise and hearing loss are also linked to an increased risk of dementia.

Recognizing early warning signs

Loved ones of older patients should be on the lookout for warning signs. Memory loss plus the addition of behavioral changes would warrant a trip to a doctor. Some common behavioral changes include:

  • Becoming paranoid
  • Becoming disheveled
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Depression

Some patients may benefit from two groups of medications that affect the receptors in the brain. New research has also indicated medications are available that remove abnormal proteins in the brain. However, due to the potential for certain side effects, medication is not an option for everyone, and they are only available at some locations including Yale New Haven Hospital. To qualify, proper testing which includes a blood test and scan is needed.

How to improve memory

For anyone who is older and dealing with some normal forgetfulness, now is a good time to keep the brain active.

“If you always wanted to learn Spanish, always wanted to learn French, this is the right time to try and do it. If you always wanted to paint, you liked it as a child, go and paint. Any new skill is helpful because it develops new connections in the brain,” said Dr. Choksey.

He also stressed the importance of following a healthy diet low in excess salt, sugar and alcohol, doing aerobic exercise, and keeping blood pressure and diabetes under control. Addressing a lack of sleep, stress, depression and hearing loss is important too.

Even for older adults who live an active and healthy lifestyle, a visit to a geriatrician after 65 doesn’t hurt. A geriatrician can properly assess their patient’s mood, memory, medications and advanced care planning. That way if the patient starts to experience changes, they will have a plan in place for addressing their health needs.