Memory loss: When to seek help
Memory loss: When to seek help
Everyone forgets things at some time. How often have you misplaced your car keys or forgotten the name of a person you just met?
Some degree of memory problems, as well as a modest decline in other thinking skills, is a fairly common part of aging. There's a difference, however, between normal changes in memory and the type of memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. And some memory problems are the result of treatable conditions.
If you're experiencing memory problems, talk to your doctor to get a timely diagnosis and appropriate care.
Memory loss and aging
Normal age-related memory loss doesn't prevent you from living a full and productive life. For example, you may forget a person's name, but recall it later in the day. You might misplace your glasses occasionally. Or maybe you find that you need to make lists more often than in the past in order to remember appointments or tasks.
These changes in memory are generally manageable and don't disrupt your ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.
Memory loss and dementia
The word "dementia" is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms, including impairment in memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills. Dementia begins gradually in most cases, worsens over time and significantly impairs a person's abilities in work, social interactions and relationships.
Often, memory loss is one of the first or more recognizable signs of dementia. Other early signs may include:
Diseases that cause progressive damage to the brain — and consequently result in dementia — include:
Each of these conditions has a somewhat different disease process (pathology). Memory impairment isn't always the first sign of disease, and the type of memory problems may vary.
Mild cognitive impairment
Mild cognitive impairment is a notable change in thinking skills that's limited, for the most part, to a narrow set of problems, such as impairment only in memory. It generally doesn't prevent a person from carrying out everyday tasks and being socially engaged.
Researchers and physicians are still learning much about mild cognitive impairment. For many people, the condition eventually progresses to Alzheimer's disease or another disorder causing dementia.
Other people experience little progression in memory loss, and they don't develop the whole spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia.
Reversible causes of memory loss
Many medical problems can cause memory loss or other dementia-like symptoms. Most of these conditions can be successfully treated, and your doctor can screen you for conditions that cause reversible memory impairment.
Possible causes of reversible memory loss include:
When to see your doctor
If you're concerned about memory loss, see your doctor. He or she can conduct tests to judge the degree of memory impairment and diagnose the cause.
Your doctor is likely to have a number of questions for you, and you will benefit by having a family member or friend along to answer some questions based on his or her observations. Questions may include:
In addition to a general physical exam, your doctor will likely conduct relatively brief question-and-answer tests to judge your memory and other thinking skills. He or she will also order blood tests and brain imaging tests that can help identify reversible causes of memory problems and dementia-like symptoms.
You may also be referred to a specialist in diagnosing dementia or memory disorders, such as a neurologist, psychiatrist, psychologist or geriatrician.
The importance of a diagnosis
Coming to terms with memory loss and the possible onset of dementia can be difficult. A person may try to hide memory problems, and family members or friends may compensate for a person's loss of memory — sometimes without being aware of how much they've adapted to the impairment.
Getting a prompt diagnosis is important, even if it's a challenging step. Identifying a reversible cause of memory impairment enables you to get appropriate treatment. Also, an early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer's disease or a related disorder is beneficial for a number of reasons:
Your doctor can help you identify appropriate community resources and organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association, to help you cope with memory loss and other dementia symptoms.
Last Updated: 2011-07-07
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