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When memory problems go beyond forgetfulness

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As we grow older, many of us worry about memory loss. “I walked into the basement, and I can’t remember why I went there!” “I’ve lost my glasses again.”

Moments of forgetfulness are part of the normal aging process. But a pattern of dramatic memory loss — like forgetting that you wear glasses — isn’t a normal part of aging.

An inability to do tasks needed to live independently signals a serious memory problem, said Sue Bikkie, a geriatric nurse practitioner at Allina Health. These tasks include things like keeping up with household finances and shopping for groceries.

Memory problems in anyone younger than age 65 are a red flag and need prompt attention, Bikkie said. They’re more common in people older than age 80.

If you’re concerned about a memory problem, the first step is talking with your primary care doctor. It’s a good idea to bring along another person who can tell the doctor what he or she observes.

Assessment

“Often, a family member will put together the whole picture, noticing a pattern of memory problems,” explained Jeffrey Larsen, MD. He noted that this process is difficult for spouses, who often “cover” for their partner without realizing it.

The doctor will conduct a comprehensive assessment to look for any underlying medical conditions. Lab tests are usually done to check for thyroid problems, a vitamin deficiency and other problems.

An important part of the appointment is reviewing the person’s prescriptions. “Medicines can cause memory loss,” Larsen said. Bring a list of your medicines with you and be sure to include over-the-counter medicines, vitamins and supplements.

A number of diseases cause memory loss, ranging from Alzheimer’s disease to vascular dementia, in which mini strokes damage the brain. When Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed at an early stage, medicine can be started that may slow the person’s decline and delay the need for nursing home care. This improves the quality of life not only for the person but also for his or her caregivers.

Content Source: Healthy Communities magazine, spring 2013
Review Date: 4/17/2013
Reviewed By: Sue Bikkie, a geriatric nurse practitioner at Allina Health and Jeffrey Larsen, MD

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