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Later Life Guide

Health issues and concerns of older adults: solutions, strategies, and support

Forgetfulness? Or Memory Loss?

Are are some ways to tell the difference between simple forgetting and more worrisome conditions (and more):


If you're concerned about possibly losing mental abilities, the good news is that exercising the brain offers some protection against memory loss of cognitive decline. Word or logic puzzles (crosswords, sudoku, jigsaw puzzles) and other activities help; and playing cards or board games, taking a class, or getting involved in a new hobby has the added benefit of being social, too.

And don't forget the value of physical exercise on the brain, too!

Some Causes of Memory Loss That Are NOT Dementia

If you suspect more than simple forgetfulness, don't immediately jump to the conclusion that it's dementia. Several other factors can influence memory loss. Only about a third of people with mild cognitive impairment will later be diagnosed with Alzheimer's.  Memory loss from other causes can often be reversed or managed with treatment. For those who do later develop dementia, early diagnosis can make a huge difference as well.

Talk to your health care team if any of the common complications described in these websites seems likely:

 

Stress, sleep disorders, depression, and anxiety also effect memory and/or cognition. (And worrying about losing memory can add to the stress!). Take a look at the sections on Depression, Grief and Loneliness and on Issues with Sleep in this guide to learn more about how those can connect to memory and cognition. 


Many women have more problems with focusing or remembering things, just before and during menopause. (Good news - many women find this gets better after menopause.)


Thyroid hormone levels that are too high (hyperthyroidism) or too low (hypothyroidism) can cause memory lapses or problems with paying attention or concentration, along with other mood disorders. 


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Similarly, blood glucose levels that are either too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia) have been implicated in memory loss in diabetics.

While having high blood glucose levels over a period of time can lead to problems of memory and brain function, a confused mental state is one sign of hypoglycemia - which needs attention fast.


Vitamin B-12 deficiency or pernicious anemia can cause memory loss or confusion.

 


Some surprisingly common medications can cause memory problems. (Also see the links about medications that have depression as a side effect in the section for Depression.)

The side effects of chemotherapy on memory and concentration are so well-known that they're nicknamed "chemo brain".


Memory loss or cognitive impairment can also be caused by other diseases, like Parkinson's or Lyme Disease, or long COVID.


Ironically, being hospitalized for a procedure that requires anesthesia or for critical care can also impact cognitive ability. For more on post-hospital syndrome, see the section for Coping with Emergencies in our online resource collection for family caregivers.


 

When Should Someone Stop Driving?

Being able to drive is crucially important to be able to to live independently. Driving safely, however, depends on good vision, reaction time, physical abilities, attention span, memory and cognition - which can all change as we age. Medications often make drivers unsafe, too.

The California DMV has safety guides for older drivers in both English & Spanish (linked above). These additional resources can also help determine whether it's time to hang up the car keys for good:

Dementia - What is it & How is it Diagnosed?

Dementia isn't one disease, but a cluster of similar symptoms with different causes.


The most common causes of dementia:

(Dementia-like symptoms can also be associated with HIV or repeated traumatic brain injury.)

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Diagnosing Dementia

 

Often a specialist will need to diagnose dementia, since it can be difficult to tell between certain types. Your healthcare team may request different tests or questionnaires. These resources can help prepare for a dementia evaluation.

What Happens After a Diagnosis of Dementia or Alzheimer's?

If your health care team has made a formal diagnosis of Alzheimer's or one of the other forms of dementia, now what? There are as many answers to that question as people with this condition; everyone's experience is unique, and will change over time as their disease progresses. Some people can continue to live independently for awhile.

Once there is a diagnosis of some form of dementia, it's time to plan. Check out the resources linked in our Caregiving Resources online collections and our Later Life Planning guide (particularly the Special Considerations - Cognitive or Memory Issues section) for tips and tools.

Be sure to include managing  financial tasks as part of those plans, especially when financial issues are often among the earliest signs of dementia.

The text on this page is copyright PlaneTree Health Library, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Linked contents are the responsibility of their creators or copyright holders.