“I often see patients who are concerned about memory loss,” says Dr. Daniel Hoefer, a family medicine and palliative care doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “In most cases, if they’re asking if it’s dementia, it probably isn’t. Yet, if it’s an adult child, asking about their aging parent, it probably is.”
Like any organ, the brain slows down as we age. Now that people are living longer and longer, we will continue to see cognitive issues impact older communities. However, signs of true dementia are much more jarring than forgetting a phone number. Depending on the cause, everyday memory loss can often be remedied with simple lifestyle changes.
Understanding and managing everyday memory loss
Episodes of forgetfulness can strike at any age — with the most common causes being stress or depression.
“Stress can take a toll on our minds,” says Dr. Hoefer. “It distracts us, and triggers momentary memory problems. Depression can also affect our memory, disconnecting us with our surroundings and dulling our concentration and awareness.”
Some ways to help manage stress and depression, to keep our minds sharp, include:
- Engaging in aerobic exercise
- Getting enough quality sleep, without the use of prescription medications
- Staying hydrated throughout the day
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs
- Eating a balanced diet
- Practicing relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga
“It’s artificial that we tell people to retire at 65,” he says. “Retire from your job, yes, but don’t turn your brain off. Have a purpose when you wake up. I know it’s a trend for seniors to do crossword puzzles or play word games to stay ‘sharp,’ but really it’s the interaction that matters. So read books, but then discuss those books with friends or an organized book club.”
Medication and memory loss
Medications as a memory impairment is a topic Dr. Hoefer wishes more of his patients would pay close attention to. “Many people don’t realize how some medications can affect the brain. The worst part is that once the brain is impacted by medications, or medication combinations, there is no reversal.”
Dr. Hoefer points out that any meds with psychoactive properties can be a problem, causing permanent cognitive damage if taken long enough. Some of these include antihistamines, gastrointestinal antispasmodics, muscle relaxers, antidepressants, antipsychotics and bladder incontinence medications.
The solution is for patients to take a very active role in their medical treatment plans. Dr. Hoefer suggests discussing the impact of recommended medications with their doctor and always asking the question, how will this affect my brain?
“Obviously, medications are important when treating certain conditions. But there needs to be a balance. A patient may need a heart drug for proper heart function, but perhaps that means forgoing certain surgeries that require anesthesia. If you’re 85 and already have memory issues, weighing the risks and benefits of treatments should always include impact on the brain.”
When memory issues go beyond everyday forgetfulness, and begin to affect a person’s quality of life, dementia could be a possible diagnosis.
“Mild cognitive impairment is normal, but if memory problems are interfering with a patient’s ability to act appropriately, it’s time to get evaluated by a primary care physician,” Dr. Hoefer says. Some ways to identify early onset dementia include:
- Forgetting to pay bills
- Failing to eat or cook properly
- Trouble carrying on a conversation
- Getting lost while traveling to familiar places
- Experiencing mood or behavior changes for no reason
- Taking longer to complete familiar tasks
- Repeating the same questions or sentiments multiple times