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Is it memory loss? Dementia? Alzheimer's disease?

Created date

October 23rd, 2015

One area in health that is both anxiety-provoking and confusing is the topic of memory loss, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia often evokes more fear among seniors than heart disease and cancer. 

Dementia is really just a descriptive term for a group of symptoms that can include difficulty with learning and retaining new information, finding words, handling cognitive tasks that used to be easy, finding your way in familiar places, and also managing social settings. Using the term dementia means that the cognitive loss represents a change, which often affects everyday living. 

Common forgetfulness such as not being able to find your car keys, not remembering an acquaintance’s name, or difficulty finding a word does not in and of itself represent dementia. Generally, it is the spouse, family, or close friends who first notice changes. But before rushing to diagnose yourself or someone you know, please remember memory changes with some impairment are very common, with 35%–50% of individuals over age 85 affected.

Many causes

Having dementia symptoms does not mean someone has a progressive disease of the brain like Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia can be caused by medication side effects, alcohol, metabolic problems, thyroid or other hormone abnormalities, mood disorders such as depression, nutritional deficiencies (such as a lack of vitamin B12), infections, and reversible changes in the brain. Interestingly, patients with depression are more likely to complain of memory loss than those with dementia. Many of these causes can be effectively treated, so please seek medical attention if you notice changes in memory. I can describe countless examples in practice through the years where simply stopping a medication or treating low thyroid function or depression resulted in improved memory. 

If you are diagnosed with a nonreversible disease process such as Alzheimer’s, there are still things you can do to maintain and even improve your quality of life and reduce the burden on your loved ones. Next month, I will describe the steps you can take to address and manage dementia. In terms of prevention, the very best way to maintain cognitive function is to stay physically active and reduce risk of stroke by addressing cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking and high blood pressure. Regular physical activity has a multitude of benefits and can lift your mood, improve your strength, and provide opportunities for social interaction. 

Please remember that not all memory loss is dementia and not all dementia is Alzheimer’s. See your physician or medical provider to ease concerns and address issues.