Memory Loss in Seniors: When Is It Normal? When Is It Not?

Where did I put my keys? Or, where did I park my car? For most people, these questions probably sound more than vaguely familiar.

That is because aging normally involves a certain degree of memory loss. But what degree is normal, and what is cause for concern?

Over the course of our lives—starting in our 20s—we lose brain cells, a few at a time, causing a normal decline in the brain’s ability to remember. Forgetting the names of people you recently met is fairly common. And from time to time the perfect word you want to use may escape you. But generally the name or word comes to you a little later. That’s normal. However, you may have reason for concern if you forget directions to a place you have been to many times or how to do things you have done often. This could signal the beginning of Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia.

Memory loss in seniors also can be brought on by reversible conditions, such as:

  • Medication. Side effects can mimic Alzheimer’s symptoms, particularly in the elderly or people whose liver does not eliminate a drug normally. Interactions of drugs also can cause confusion or forgetfulness. To avoid this, share with health care providers a list of all medications you take, including over-the-counter and herbal remedies.
  • Dehydration. As they lose the ability to feel thirst, seniors are especially susceptible to dehydration. Dehydration itself can cause confusion and an increased concentration of medicine in the blood.
  • Head injury. Loss of brain cells even from what may seem like a minor head bump can lead to fuzzy-headedness. If that is the case, see your doctor.
  • Depression. Stress, anxiety and depression can trigger forgetfulness or confusion.
  • Alcohol. Interacting with medicine, alcohol can cause memory loss. Chronic alcoholism can seriously impair mental function by causing a deficiency of thiamin (vitamin B-1).

We can also take an active role in keeping our minds sharp and slowing memory loss. Eating right provides valuable nutrients and exercising improves circulation to the brain. Reading, playing cards, learning new skills, doing puzzles and brain teasers, maintaining an active social life and getting adequate rest also help maintain a fit brain.

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