On Your Health

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When Is Forgetfulness A Sign Of Something More Serious?

18 April 2022

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If you’ve forgotten your phone four out of the last five days, are you just distracted by your big project or is this how dementia starts? What if you notice you aren’t learning new things as easily, or forgetting to pay the occasional bill? What then? The answer: it depends. 

What are the categories for thinking or remembering problems? The categories for thinking or remembering problems include normal forgetfulness, reversible memory loss, mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

Dementia is a scary word. It’s a catchall term for loss of memory, problem-solving, thinking ability and language recall issues that are pervasive or severe enough to interfere with daily life activities or cause concern for a person’s safety. 


What is considered normal forgetfulness?

We all have bouts of forgetfulness or absentmindedness. Normal forgetfulness, AKA “where are my keys?” can be combatted by using a variety of techniques to strengthen your memory and/or outsmart yourself. Some may surprise you. For example:

Get enough sleep. You need between seven and eight hours a night. As the National Institutes of Health explain it, the best way to learn something new/retain information is to sleep on it. Sleeping helps link new memories and information to previous ones, and it helps strengthen memories you’ve made during the day. Also, sleep deprived people cannot focus as well as well-rested people.

Socialize. Since depression and stress can heighten or trigger memory loss, actively seeking out shared time with people we love or enjoy makes sense. 

Move your body. Physical activity is good for your entire body – including your brain. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate activity each week like walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, like running. 

Mental activity is important, too. Play board games, work on crossword puzzles, do the Wordle or learn a new language. You can keep your mind in tip-top shape by keeping it active.

Feed your brain. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains along with lean proteins like beans, tofu, fish and chicken aren’t just ideal fuel for your body, they’re terrific for your mind.


What is reversible memory loss?

Reversible memory loss can mimic dementia and its potential causes are many. Most are treatable conditions, and once they’re diagnosed and treated, the memory loss improves.

Some possibilities are:

Vitamin B-12 deficiency. Common in older adults, too-low levels of vitamin B-12 can cause memory issues. 

Head injury or trauma. A minor head injury from an accident or fall, even if it’s not a concussion or even if you don’t lose consciousness, can trigger memory problems.

Medications. Some medications, either on their own or when combined with others, can cause confusion or forgetfulness.

Hypothyroidism. When the thyroid gland is underactive, it can cause problems with thinking and memory.

Alcoholism. Alcohol in any amount can interact with your regular medications and cause memory issues, but chronic alcoholism can seriously impair your cognitive function, including the ability to retain information. 

Brain diseases. Infection or tumors in the brain can cause symptoms that look like dementia, or lesser memory problems.

Emotional disorders. Anxiety, depression or stress can disrupt our day-to-day cognitive abilities, cause confusion, forgetfulness and make it tough to concentrate.


What is mild cognitive impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the stage between the expected, normal cognitive decline associated with aging and dementia, which is more serious and disruptive. With MCI, you may feel like you’ve lost your usual sharpness. You may have MCI if: 

  • You lose your train of thought during conversation, or cannot follow the storyline in movies or books
  • You show poor judgement, increasingly, or become more impulsive
  • Making decisions or planning how to accomplish a task are overwhelming to you
  • You forget social events and appointments
  • You’re generally more forgetful
  • Others notice changes in your memory
  • You feel anxious, depressed, apathetic or irritable

MCI can progress to dementia, but it doesn’t always. The Mayo Clinic recommends these steps, which may help prevent or slow the onset of cognitive impairment:

  • Avoid excessive alcohol use.
  • Limit exposure to air pollution.
  • Reduce your risk of head injury.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Manage health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and depression.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene and manage sleep disturbances.
  • Eat a nutrient-rich diet that has plenty of fruits and vegetables and is low in saturated fats.
  • Engage socially with others.
  • Exercise regularly at a moderate to vigorous intensity.
  • Wear a hearing aid if you have hearing loss.
  • Stimulate your mind with puzzles, games and memory training.


What is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term for a variety of conditions that disrupt thinking and memory enough to impair daily life and the ability to function on our own. Sixty to 80 percent of dementia diagnoses are Alzheimer’s disease; Lewy body dementia accounts for 5-10 percent; vascular dementia is 5—10 percent; frontotemporal dementia is another 5-10 percent and other forms of dementia like Parkinson’s or Huntington’s diseases and mixed dementia account for the rest.

Serious mental decline is a disease, not a normal part of aging. It’s caused by damage to brain cells, which makes the cells unable to communicate with each other. This can impair memory, thought and behavior. About a third of people 85 years and older will experience some form of dementia.

Signs and symptoms of dementia include:

  • Losing track of the date or year
  • Using poor judgement often
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Asking the same question over and over
  • Balance problems
  • Trouble with handling money or paying bills
  • Calling familiar things by the wrong word
  • Impulsivity
  • Delusions, paranoia or hallucinations
  • Lack of caring for the feelings of others
  • Difficulty reading or writing
  • Loss of interest in normal activities or regular events

If you or a loved one notices these symptoms, a call to your doctor is a good idea. Ruling dementia in or out is the first step in treatment. 


To learn more about how the team of neurologists at INTEGRIS Health can help, visit our website.


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