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Memory and Healthy Aging

Group of seniors celebrating birthdaySome declines in cognition and memory with age are normal, but sometimes they can signal problems. Learn the signs and symptoms of dementia and cognitive impairments so you can help the older adults in your life seek treatment at the right time.

September is Healthy Aging Month, a great time to learn the signs and symptoms associated with dementia and cognitive impairments. Physical activity, social engagement, and a healthy diet help prevent chronic conditions and increase the longevity and quality of life of older adults, but despite engaging in these healthy activities, some adults may develop memory loss or dementia. Some declines in memory are a normal part of aging, but sometimes they can signal a problem. Learn how to tell the difference.

Cognitive Decline Defined

Cognition is a combination of mental processes that include intuition, judgment, language, remembering, and the ability to learn new things. When cognition is impaired (referred to as cognitive impairment or decline), a person has trouble with these processes that begins to affect the things he or she can do in everyday life.

The decline of cognitive health—from mild cognitive decline to dementia—can have profound implications for an individual's health and well-being. Older adults and others experiencing cognitive decline may be unable to care for themselves or conduct necessary activities of daily living, such as meal preparation and money management, co-occurring medical conditions, and the inability to effectively manage medications are particular concerns when an individual's memory is impaired.

Senior man, rocking in chair and talking with nurse

If you’re concerned that you or someone you know has a serious memory problem, talk with your doctor.

Forgetfulness or Something More?

Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. Some people may notice that it takes longer to learn new things, they don't remember information as well as they did, or they lose things like their glasses. These usually are signs of mild forgetfulness, not a serious memory problem.

Some memory problems are related to health issues that may be treatable. For example, medication side effects, vitamin B 12 deficiency, chronic alcoholism, tumors or infections in the brain, or blood clots in the brain can cause memory loss or possibly dementia. Some thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders also can lead to memory loss. A doctor should treat serious medical conditions like these as soon as possible.

For some older people, memory problems are a sign of a serious problem, such as mild cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease. People who are worried about memory problems should see a doctor. The doctor might conduct or order a thorough physical and mental health evaluation to reach a diagnosis. Often, these evaluations are conducted by a neurologist, a physician who specializes in problems related to the brain and central nervous system.

Treatment

A person with dementia should be under a doctor's care. The doctor might be a neurologist, family doctor, internist, geriatrician, or psychiatrist. He or she can treat the patient's physical and behavioral problems (such as aggression, agitation, or wandering) and answer the many questions that the person or family may have. At this time, however, there are no effective treatments to slow the progression or to cure dementia or Alzheimer's disease.

Family members and friends can help people in the early stages of dementia to continue their daily routines, physical activities, and social contacts. People with dementia should be kept up to date about the details of their lives, such as the time of day, where they live, and what is happening at home or in the world. Memory aids may help. Some families find that a big calendar, a list of daily plans, notes about simple safety measures, and written directions describing how to use common household items are useful aids.

Caring for a Person with Dementia or Memory loss

According to a study published in a March 2015 release of CDC's journal Preventing Chronic Disease, a total of 12.6 percent of households reported at least one adult who experienced increased confusion or memory loss, and in nearly 6 percent of households all adults experienced increased confusion or memory loss.1 Based on these results, an estimated 4 million households in the 13 U.S. states included in the study have a family member with increased confusion or memory loss, potentially affecting more than 10 million people. This leaves many people who are left with the task of caring for someone suffering from a memory problem.

Many caregivers of older adults express satisfaction with the care they are able to provide, but they often face challenges, especially when caring for people with chronic diseases such as dementia. The day-to-day tasks may seem endless: arranging doctor's appointments and transportation, moving the person safely around, ensuring proper nutrition, and much more. Difficult situations, such as hospitalization and making decisions about long-term care, also arise. The National Institute on Aging at the National Institute of Health has information that can help caregivers approach many of these issues.

If you're concerned that you or someone you know has a serious memory problem, talk with your doctor. He or she may be able to diagnose the problem or refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist or geriatric psychiatrist. Healthcare professionals who specialize in Alzheimer's and other dementias can recommend ways to manage the problem or suggest treatment or services that might help.

References

  1. Deokar AJ, Bouldin ED, Edwards VJ, Anderson LA. Increased Confusion and Memory Loss in Households, 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Prev Chronic Dis 2015;12:1404307
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