Are Memory Issues a Cause for Concern?

older woman trying to remember something


Janet was walking her dog and ran into a neighbor. She started to say “hello” and then realized she couldn’t remember the woman’s name.  

We’ve all experienced something similar to the example above. And as we grow older, these kind of episodes may become more common. As you age, you may find it harder to remember the name of that great movie you saw last week, or the perfect word to express a certain thought or feeling may come to you more slowly. Is this just the normal signs of aging or symptoms of something more serious?

If you or someone you love is experiencing memory issues, the first thing to do is see your doctor. A complete medical evaluation may uncover a treatable underlying cause for the symptoms. It’s important not to assume that confusion, memory loss and other personality changes inevitably signal dementia. Treatable causes may include:

Adverse reactions to prescription drugs – Many drugs, on their own, may have a side effect of memory loss and include many innocuous medications taken by millions of Americans, such as Ambien, Lunesta, Xanax and Valium. Now add into the mix the fact that seniors are much more likely to be taking multiple medications – the typical 75-year-old takes more than 10 prescription drugs – and the risks for side effects increase. Overmedication is a cause for many misdiagnoses, including dementia. Tell your doctor what medications you’re taking and ask if this could be a cause of your memory loss.

Infections can also cause temporary memory loss. One of the most common among seniors is urinary tract infection (UTI). Some other symptoms of UTI include a change in behavior, confusion, a decreased appetite and depression. Once treatment is started, many patients see improvement in these symptoms within a few days.

Anxiety – A study from the University of Iowa revealed that having high levels of cortisol – the hormone released when a person is under stress – can lead to memory lapses as we age. You can reduce the stress in your life through meditation, exercise, eating well and getting enough sleep.

Depression – Depression and dementia share many symptoms, such as forgetfulness and the inability to focus. Misdiagnoses are so common, the condition has its own name – pseudodementia. The good news is that, once properly diagnosed, symptoms are often much improved with counseling, medication and lifestyle changes.

Thyroid disease – When the thyroid gland produces too little or too much thyroid hormone, memory loss and confusion may result. A simple blood test can reveal a thyroid disorder. Most types of thyroid disease are easily treatable.

Poor nutrition As we age, our appetites may change for any number of reasons – a loss of a spouse may mean we’re eating alone, our aging taste buds can’t discern differences in flavor, or medications may make foods less tasty. This can result in seniors becoming malnourished, which can create symptoms of mental confusion, uncertainty and slowness. Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet helps improve cognitive function, including memory and recall. Vitamin B-12 – which helps with normal nerve function – is an important nutrient in maintaining good brain health. 

Sleep deprivation – Quality sleep is essential for brain health. Several studies have shown that your brain has a wonderful way of eliminating toxic waste during sleep, including beta-amyloid proteins, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Poor sleep interrupts the brain’s ability to eliminate these harmful toxins.

Dehydration – As we grow older, the mechanism in our brain that tells us we are thirsty sends out a weaker signal, so seniors may drink less water than is needed for good health. Some seniors try to limit fluid intake because of fear of incontinence or they are on a fluid-restricted diet because of a medical condition. Dehydration symptoms, including disorientation and lethargy, can be similar to those of dementia.

Of course, not all memory loss is benign. It’s important to know the signs that might indicate a problem. According to the National Institute on Aging, these are some symptoms that indicate that a person should consult their healthcare provider:

  • Asking the same question over and over
  • Becoming lost in places that are familiar
  • Not being able to follow directions
  • Becoming more confused about time, people and places
  • Neglecting personal safety, hygiene and nutrition

These symptoms might indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory loss. If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to see a neurologist or other memory expert to see what may be causing the problem.

Memory loss is not a “natural part of growing older.” Geriatricians now recognize that dementia is part of a disease process. So if you’re experiencing symptoms, the first step is to rule out other, treatable conditions.