As we get older, it’s common to experience some minor memory loss. You’re watching Jeopardy! and the answer is right on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t think of it. Or you remember having your wallet or keys in your hand a few minutes ago, but now you can’t find them. Most seniors experience this from time to time. However, these changes in your ability to remember names, faces, details and events are relatively minor and easy to manage for most people.
Though minor memory loss is normal, debilitating memory problems are not. In fact, memory loss that negatively impacts quality of life is not inevitable as we age. Because the brain maintains its ability to produce new brain cells throughout life, most mental abilities are completely unaffected by aging.
Causes of memory loss
There are many potential causes for aging-related memory loss. However, many people incorrectly fear that it’s a leading sign of Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. It’s important to note that dementia refers to a condition that leads to specific symptoms, such as impaired abilities in judgment and reasoning, or language, in addition to memory loss. Unlike the memory loss most people experience as they age, dementia starts slowly and gradually worsens over time, making it very difficult to work and socialize.
Memory loss can also be caused by a wide range of highly treatable medical conditions, many of which are more likely among the elderly. For example, a severe head injury or head trauma, which can occur from a slip or fall, can harm the brain’s ability to produce new brain cells, negatively affecting the ability to form and recall memories. Also, because the brain is highly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol, excessive alcohol consumption can damage the brain and cause memory loss.
Other conditions treatable under a doctor’s care include:
- Side effects caused by prescribed medications, including cholesterol drugs, anti-anxiety medications, and painkillers, such as Percocet, Vicodin, and Oxycontin.
- A disease or infection in the brain
- Vitamin B-12 deficiency
- Hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid
- Emotional disorders, like depression, stress, or anxiety
Among seniors, depression is a common problem that is sometimes brought on by chronic pain, the loss of a spouse, isolation, or diminishing physical capabilities. It’s estimated by the American Association of Family Physicians, however, that depression can be treated in up to 75 percent of elder patients. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of all seniors with depression receive treatment.
The ordinary memory loss that most elderly patients experience, which can’t be treated by a physician, has several causes that are simply a natural part of aging. First, the hippocampus, an area of the brain that contributes to forming and retrieving memories, deteriorates as we get older. Also, proteins and hormones essential to protecting and repairing brain cells, as well as stimulating neural growth, decline with age. Finally, the flow of blood to the brain slows down as we get older, leading to impaired memory.
When you should see your doctor
So how do you tell the difference between the minor memory loss that comes with aging and memory loss that should be evaluated by a physician? The most important indicator of something more serious is if it starts to impact your quality of life. Having trouble finding your car keys on occasion is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for worry. On the other hand, if you are having increasingly frequent episodes where you can’t match a name to the face of someone you know, or can’t recall recent events at all, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment and talk to your doctor about a treatment plan.