As we get older we realize that some of our memories will be lost along the way, but when does forgetfulness become a problem? While forgetting where you left your keys might not be a sign of early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia, if you are experiencing difficulties in making decisions, solving problems or carrying out a simple set of tasks (such as cooking a meal), then it is time to take a deeper look into what might be the cause of it.
The brain has 100 billion nerve cells (neurons). Each nerve cell connects with many others to form communication networks. Groups of nerve cells have special jobs, some are involved in thinking, learning and remembering. Others help us see, hear and smell.
To do their work, brain cells operate like tiny factories. They receive supplies, generate energy, construct equipment and get rid of waste. Cells also process and store information and communicate with other cells. Keeping everything running requires coordination as well as large amounts of fuel and oxygen, but just like a real factory, backups and breakdowns in one system cause problems in other areas. As damage spreads, cells lose their ability to do their jobs and eventually die, causing irreversible changes in the brain. As we get older we are more prone to experience forgetfulness and more serious memory problems such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. As people get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. Thus, some people may notice that it takes longer to learn new things, they don’t remember information as well as they did, or they lose things like their glasses. These are usually signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.
Some memory problems are related to health issues that may be treatable. For example, side effects of medication, vitamin B12 deficiency, chronic alcoholism, tumours or infections in the brain, or blood clots in the brain can cause memory loss or possibly dementia. Some thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders also can lead to memory loss. A doctor should treat serious medical conditions like these as soon as possible.
Becoming a bit more forgetful does not necessarily mean that you have dementia or Alzheimer’s. Many people notice that their thinking gets a bit slower or their memory becomes a bit less reliable as they get older – for example, they might occasionally forget a friend’s name. These symptoms can also be a sign of stress, depression or certain physical illnesses.
Mild cognitive impairment
Some people have problems with their memory or thinking but it’s not bad enough to affect their everyday lives. In this case, a doctor may diagnose them with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This is not a type of dementia, but research shows that people with MCI have an increased risk of developing dementia.
However, MCI can also be caused by other conditions such as anxiety, depression, physical illness and the side effects of medication. Because of this, some people with MCI do not go on to develop dementia, and a small number of people will even get better.
People with some form of forgetfulness can use a variety of techniques that may help them stay healthy and maintain their memory and mental skills.
- Plan tasks, make to-do lists, and use memory aids like notes and calendars. Some people find they remember things better if they mentally connect them to other meaningful things, such as a familiar name, song, book, or TV show.
- Engage in physical activity and exercise. Several studies have associated exercise (such as walking) with better brain function.
- Limit alcohol use. Although some studies suggest that moderate consumption of alcohol has health benefits, heavy or binge drinking over time can cause memory loss and permanent brain damage.
- Find activities, such as exercise or a hobby, to relieve feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression. If these feelings last for a long time, talk with your doctor.
However, anyone who is worried that their memory is getting noticeably worse, or who has other symptoms such as those listed above, should discuss their concerns with a medical professional.
In Alzheimer’s disease, changes in certain parts of the brain result in the death of many nerve cells. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin slowly and worsen steadily as damage to nerve cells spreads throughout the brain. As time goes by, forgetfulness gives way to serious problems with thinking, judgment, recognizing family and friends, and the ability to perform daily activities like driving a car or handling money. Eventually, the person needs total care.
Although the onset of Alzheimer’s disease can, at this stage, not be stopped or reversed, an early diagnosis can allow a person the opportunity to live well with the disease for as long as possible and plan for the future.
The word ‘dementia’ describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. These changes are often small to start with, but for someone with dementia they have become severe enough to affect daily life.
It mainly affects people over the age of 65 (one in 14 people in this age group have dementia), and the likelihood of developing dementia increases significantly with age. However, dementia can affect younger people too.
Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or a series of strokes. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, but not the only one. The specific symptoms that someone with dementia experiences will depend on the parts of the brain that are damaged and the disease that is causing the dementia.
While symptoms of dementia can vary greatly, at least two of the following core mental functions must be significantly impaired to be considered dementia:
- Memory – difficulty recalling events that happened recently
- Communication and language – difficulties following a conversation or finding the right word for something
- Ability to focus and pay attention – losing track of the day or date, or becoming confused about where they are
- Reasoning and judgment – difficulties making decisions, solving problems or carrying out a sequence of tasks (such as cooking a meal)
- Visual perception – problems judging distances (such as on stairs) and seeing objects in three dimensions
- Behavioural changes – they may become frustrated or irritable, apathetic or withdrawn, anxious, easily upset or unusually sad
Dementia is progressive, which means the symptoms gradually get worse over time. How quickly this happens varies greatly from person to person. A person with dementia, especially in the later stages, may have physical symptoms such as muscle weakness or weight loss. Changes in sleep pattern and appetite are also common.
Scientists are investigating how dementia might run in the family. In a very small number of people, certain types of dementia are inherited as a single gene that directly causes the disease. People with one of these genes will usually get dementia before the age of 65. Everyone else will inherit a combination of genes that increases or decreases their risk of developing dementia in much less direct ways.
Prevention is better than a cure
It is not usually possible to say for sure why a person has developed dementia. Factors such as high blood pressure, lack of physical exercise and smoking – all of which lead to narrowing of the arteries – increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. There is evidence that a healthy lifestyle, especially in mid-life, can help reduce the risk of dementia. Regular physical exercise (for example, cycling, swimming, brisk walking), maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and drinking alcohol only in moderation, if at all, are linked to a reduced risk of dementia.
A healthy balanced diet also helps to reduce a person’s risk. A balanced diet is one which is low in saturated fat, does not have too much salt, sugar or red meat, and includes plenty of fish, starchy foods, fruit and vegetables. All these healthy lifestyle choices will also reduce the risk of other serious conditions such as stroke, heart disease and cancer.
A person who is already living with conditions such as diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure or high cholesterol should follow professional advice to keep their condition under control. Getting depression treated early is also important.
Nutrition does make a difference in how well your brain works. Choose nutrient-dense foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and good-quality protein rather than processed snacks or fast food. Eating a wide variety of foods is one of the best ways to ensure you stay mentally sharp.
Many people have memory loss issues — this does not mean they have Alzheimer’s or dementia
There are many different causes of memory problems. If you or a loved one is experiencing troubling symptoms, visit a doctor to determine the reason. Some causes of dementia-like symptoms can be reversed.