When we see an elderly person who is confused or incoherent, we tend assume it has something to do with senility or dementia. Loss of memory is not necessarily a sign of dementia and senility is not necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s disease, even in the elderly. This is a comforting message from aging experts.
However, there can be other causes for memory loss. Stress is one. Side effects of medications are another. There are many more.
According to Mara Mather, reasercher on aging at USC:
“Memory loss is not always due to dementia and it’s not always due to aging… Stress has an impact on memory and long-term stress can diminish the size of the hippocampus and diminish memory abilities and it looks like to some extent that’s recoverable.”
In fact, there are many factors that can influence memory skills. Some of these are listed below (source: USNews.com)
- Nutritional deficiency, e.g. deficiency in certain vitamins and minerals
- Diseases and medical conditions such as diabetes or hypothyroidism
- Oxygen deprivation of the brain, which can be cause by stroke, heart attack, or severe trauma
- Structural abnormalities in or damage to the parts of the brain associated with memory formation
- Free-radical damage.
- Chemical poisoning, including consumption of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs
- Infections of the central nervous system (CNS) infections such as encephalitis, toxoplasmosis and neurosyphilis
- Stress, emotional as well as physical
- Sensory overload, e.g. when a person is trying to do too many tasks or worry about too many things at the same time, the brain is overloaded with information and cannot process short-term memories.
- Low blood sugar
- Genetic factors
- Seizures, such as those related to epilepsy
- Severe emotional trauma
- Low estrogen levels in postmenopausal women
Thus, there is no reason to jump into conclusions about older people’s diminishing mental capacities. This could just well be temporary or “reversible” dementia due to one or more of the abovementioned factors. Instead, when signs of memory loss or confusion arise, we should first look at the possible factors involved. Is the person under mental or emotional stress? What sort of medications is the person taking? Family members and caregiver are also advised to talk to the patient’s doctor.
“To find the underlying cause of memory loss, your physician will obtain a detailed medical history, which documents the pattern, symptoms, and types of memory loss. He or she will also inquire about contributing factors that may worsen or trigger memory loss. A routine physical and detailed neuropsychological examination with a focus on memory function will be conducted. In addition, he or she will order several diagnostic tests.”
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