You know the story. You go into a room and completely forget why you went there! Or you forgot where you put your keys. Does this mean that you have dementia or is this a normal part of aging? In the vast number of cases, this is normal. Recognizing the difference between normal aging and dementia can help to guide your future decisions.
What is Normal Aging?
Our ideas of normal aging are changing almost daily. Health and geriatric experts are on the exciting forefront of defining what healthy aging means. Old, outdated perceptions that equate normal aging with dementia are being challenged. Normal aging is healthy aging. And healthy aging is not rocket science. It is a combination of the following factors, many of which are in your control:
- An active and engaged mind.
- A strong social life.
- A consistent exercise program that combines aerobic activity with strength training.
- Good nutrition.
6 Causes of Memory Problems
Memory problems are not necessarily a consequence of dementia. Memory problems can be caused by several other factors, many of which are reversible. Ask for a complete physical exam with labs to rule out any other cause of dementia-like symptoms. Other possible causes of memory issues include:
- Medications. Some of these medications are implicated in memory loss or memory impairment. Talk to your doctor if you have a concern.
- Anti-Parkinson drugs
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Cardiovascular drugs
- Depression. Some of the symptoms of depression can mimic dementia. These include memory problems, inattention and slowed responses. Depression can often be determined by a test given by your doctor. This test consists of a series of questions about feelings, sleep habits, energy level and more.
- High or Low Thyroid Levels. Ask your doctor for a thyroid test (determined by a blood draw). This measures hormones from the thyroid itself, as well as thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).
- Delirium. Delirium is a serious disturbance in mental abilities. Some of the symptoms are confusion and disorientation. Delirium can be caused by severe or chronic illness, or changes in metabolic balance (such as low sodium). Other culprits include medications, infection, surgery, or alcohol or drug intoxication or withdrawal.
- Vitamin Deficiencies. B12 is a common vitamin deficiency. You may have to ask your physician to add this to any lab tests. Again, a simple blood draw will determine if you are vitamin B12 deficient.
- Sleep Problems. Chronic insomnia can lead to mental confusion and memory impairment. Your doctor can address sleep habits and possible solutions.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is not a normal part of aging. But what is dementia exactly?
Dementia itself is not a disease. Dementia is a general term to describe mental decline that interferes with functioning. It describes a group of symptoms including problems with memory, reasoning, thinking and remembering. Some people also experience behavioral problems. These symptoms interfere with daily function. Some types of dementia include:
- Lewy body dementia
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Huntington’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease with dementia
- Vascular dementia
- Normal pressure hydrocephalus
- Posterior cortical atrophy
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
Mild cognitive impairment is milder than dementia and causes a slight but noticeable decline in cognitive ability. These symptoms may be noticed by the individual or family members. They include not remembering important events, conversations or appointments. Thinking skills may be affected. Problems with reasoning, sequencing or complex problem-solving may occur. People diagnosed with MCI are at greater risk for developing dementia. If you or a family member have concerns about MCI, talk to your doctor about a further evaluation.
Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means it worsens over time. Those diagnosed under 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s. You can try to slow the progression of early-onset Alzheimer’s by creating brain-healthy habits. There are some medications that can treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s but there is currently no cure for the disease.
Can I get Tested for Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
The short answer is, yes. But the process is more one of elimination rather than determination. Many primary physicians will administer the MOCA (The Montreal Cognitive Assessment). The MOCA is a series of 30 questions. It assesses memory, attention, language and abstraction. The test is not intended to diagnose any specific disease. But rather it is used as a screening tool. Depending on the score, your physician may refer you, your spouse or parent for further evaluation. This may include but is not limited to:
- Ruling out other conditions with lab tests.
- Interviews with family and friends.
- Neuropsychological testing.
- Brain imaging scans including an MRI and/or PET scan.
Suspecting that you, a spouse or family member may have dementia is a frightening prospect. For that reason, many people hide their symptoms. Or they get an evaluation after the disease has progressed. Don’t wait or live in denial about dementia. Knowing sooner will give you and your family time to make plans. And although there is no cure, managing symptoms can improve quality of life.