Is memory loss cause for concern?

October 12, 2010 By Earle Sittambalam, M.D.

Your loved one has been forgetting things lately—where he or she placed the car keys, a dentist appointment, even a good friend's name. Are these memory lapses a sign of normal aging or symptoms of Alzheimer's disease? Occasional forgetfulness doesn't mean someone has Alzheimer's, but if it happens regularly, it could be cause for concern.

No single test can identify Alzheimer's disease. Symptoms can include memory loss, difficulty performing familiar tasks, problems with language, disorientation, and changes in mood, behavior and personality. A person would have to show several symptoms before Alzheimer's disease would even be considered. In addition, most “suspicious” symptoms are more likely due to a physical or emotional problem than to Alzheimer's. More than 60 other disorders have similar symptoms.

Alzheimer's develops very gradually. And, although forgetfulness is usually the earliest and most obvious symptom, a psychological problem—depression, irritability or anxiety—is often the real tip-off. Alzheimer's is diagnosed after physical, neurological and mental health assessments, and lab tests to rule out other conditions. If Alzheimer's is diagnosed, symptoms will progressively worsen, but early drug treatment can sometimes delay decline.

When to see the doctor
If your loved one shows any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with his or her healthcare provider:

• forgetting things, especially information learned recently
• forgetting common words and using odd words in their place
• repeating questions over and over
• having trouble with everyday tasks such as preparing meals or playing a favorite card game
• becoming lost in familiar places
• having sudden and unexplained mood swings or dramatic personality changes
• ignoring personal safety
• regularly repeating the same story, word for word
• struggling to solve simple math problems, pay bills or balance a checkbook
• neglecting to bathe or change clothes
• misplacing items in odd places, such as putting car keys in the refrigerator
• constantly checking or hoarding things of no value

These symptoms don't always mean Alzheimer's disease. Other conditions that may cause memory problems include drug interactions, fever, dehydration, vitamin deficiency, poor nutrition, thyroid problems and minor head injuries. Stress, anxiety and depression can also make a person forgetful.

What can you do?
To help keep your loved one's mind sharp, encourage him or her to develop hobbies and stay physically active. Employ memory aids to ease daily routines, such as posting a big calendar to record appointments, making to-do lists, leaving reminders about safety measures and writing instructions for using household items.

Earle Sittambalam, M.D., specializes in internal medicine at The Hospital of Central Connecticut. For information on hospital physicians, please contact our free Need-A-Physician referral service by phone 800.321.6244.