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When to worry about memory loss

April 09, 2019 | UCI Health
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Have you ever misplaced your wallet, lost your keys, or struggled to recall someone’s name? Perhaps you’ve walked into a room to get something only to forget what it was?

Everyone has experienced forgetfulness here and there. But when is memory loss indicative of a larger problem?

UCI Health memory disorders specialist Dr. Seyed Ahmad Sajjadi, says an occasional lapse in memory is normal as we age and nothing to be worried about.

When to see a doctor for memory loss

But if memory problems begin to interfere with day-to-day tasks and routines, then it may be time to consult a doctor, says Sajjadi, a prolific Alzheimer’s disease researcher and assistant professor of neurology at the UCI School of Medicine.

Aging, Sajjadi explains, can lead to changes in the neural activity between different parts of the brain that can have an effect on reaction times and our interactions with our environment.

“As we get older, and as part of the aging process, the speed at which we process information slows, as well as our ability to multitask.

“Frequent forgetfulness, on the other hand, is not normally expected with aging alone. Memory problems, especially when they become noticeable to family and friends, can be an indicator of a more serious issue.”

Signs and symptoms of dementia

There are some red flags that are important to pay attention to if you or a loved one is experiencing memory problems, Sajjadi says. 

“When the degree and frequency of these problems reach a certain limit, people will start wondering if what is happening to them is abnormal. For example, it is normal for people to forget the name of somebody they do not see that often. But this information eventually should come back to them.

“If it does not come back, or they have no recollection of things that they are expected to remember, that's the time we should start getting concerned.”

Sajjadi recommends scheduling an appointment with your doctor if you are experiencing the following:

  • A decline in work performance or failure to meet deadlines, goals or milestones once easily achieved
  • Changes in personality, agitation and irritability
  • Trouble remembering names of people close to you or those you see on a regular basis
  • Regularly forgetting what you want to say or losing track of thoughts mid-conversation
  • Inability to communicate properly or difficulty understanding what others are saying
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks, such as cooking, driving to work, getting dressed or other day-to-day routines
  • Repeatedly asking the same question
  • A decline in hygiene, such as not remembering to bathe, brush teeth or put on clean clothing
  • Displays of poor judgment or an inability to problem-solve
  • Wandering or getting lost in familiar areas or neighborhoods

Start with your primary care provider

If you’re concerned about memory loss, your primary care physician is a good starting point. Your doctor will perform an initial physical exam and cognitive screening tests.

If results from these tests indicate a problem, you may be referred to a neurologist for an in-depth cognitive evaluation. The evaluation will assess attention, concentration, memory, problem-solving and verbal skills. Additional tests may include:

  • Blood test — to rule out deficiencies in thyroid function and vitamin levels, as well as other tests as appropriate
  • Brain imaging scans — such as CT scans and MRI to see the structure of the brain
  • Cerebrospinal fluid tests — to examine levels of amyloid and tau proteins related to Alzheimer’s disease in a select group of patients and to exclude infections

The difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia

It is a common misconception that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are the same thing. Dementia is a general term for a decline in cognitive function. There are many other conditions that can cause dementia, but Alzheimer’s disease is the most common reason for its onset in older adults.

To better understand how dementia in Alzheimer’s patients occurs, it’s important to understand how the disease affects the brain. In Alzheimer’s patients, an abnormal buildup of plaques and tangles of abnormal proteins accumulates between nerve cells within the brain. As the disease progresses, these abnormal proteins disrupt nerve function and eventually cause nerve cell death, leading to a loss of brain tissue.

This loss of brain tissue impacts memory, learning, speech, visual-spatial abilities and other cognitive functions. Together, this loss of cognitive function makes up the elements of dementia, says Sajjadi, who recently joined a Facebook Live discussion with the UCI Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND).

Causes of memory loss

Scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss, but experts believe that it may be caused by a variety of factors related to:

  • Lifestyle
  • Environment
  • Genetics
  • Age

What we do know is that staying engaged and participating in stimulating activities seems to help improve symptoms of fogginess or forgetfulness.

How to keep your brain healthy

There is no sure way to prevent dementia or Alzheimer’s, but there are things you can do in general to retain memory and improve overall brain health.

  • Eat a healthy diet. This includes foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish, nuts and olive oil), as well as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In general, a well-balanced diet that isn’t too high in fat is beneficial.
  • Exercise. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and is important in maintaining overall health. Clinical trials have shown that exercise may slow the progression of degenerative brain diseases such as dementia. Sajjadi recommends 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five days a week as both a preventive and disease-modifying measure.
  • Stimulate your mind. Exercising your mind is important. Do a puzzle, play a game, or learn a new skill, which will help your brain stay active.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Rest and a good night’s sleep are important to keep the brain healthy. For adults age 65 and older, seven to eight hours of sleep each night is recommended. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep strengthens connections between brain cells and transfers information from one area of the brain to another.
  • Stay socially active. Maintaining positive relationships helps ward off depression, supports brain health and improves quality of life. Researchers are still working to understand what happens in the brain to produce the positive effects of socializing, but evidence is increasing that seniors who are socially active show improvements in memory and cognitive function.
  • Quit smoking. Research has shown that smoking can increase the chance of cognitive decline. Smoking is a well-known risk factor for stroke and may contribute to the risk of dementia. Quitting smoking can reduce this risk as well as improve your general health.

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