Do memory problems always mean Alzheimer’s?

Older Black Gentleman with Alzheimers
Older Black Gentleman with Alzheimers

Strategies for Well-Being

Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. As people get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As a result, 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 serious memory problems, like Alzheimer’s disease.

Many people worry about becoming forgetful. They think forgetfulness is the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease. But not all people with memory problems have Alzheimer’s. Other causes for memory problems can include aging, medical conditions, emotional problems, mild cognitive impairment or another type of dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. It is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. While dementia is more common as people grow older, it is not a normal part of aging.

The disease is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer. In 1906, she noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. Her symptoms included memory loss, language problems and unpredictable behavior.

Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s. Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, the number of people with it will increase significantly if current population trends continue. This is because increasing age is the most important known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

The time from diagnosis to death varies – as little as three or four years if the person is older than 80 when diagnosed to as long as 10 or more years if the person is younger.

Alzheimer’s disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, but recent estimates indicate that the disorder may rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people.

Although treatment can help manage symptoms in some people, there is no cure.

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning – thinking, remembering and reasoning – and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. It ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for even basic activities of living.

While dementia is more common as people grow older – up to half of all people age 85 or older may have some form of dementia – it is not a normal part of aging. Many people live into their 90s and beyond without any signs of dementia.

Some people with dementia cannot control their emotions. Their personalities may change. They can have delusions, which are strong beliefs without proof, such as the idea that someone is stealing from them. They also may hallucinate, seeing or otherwise experiencing things that are not real.

The causes of dementia can vary, depending on the types of brain changes that may be taking place. Other dementias include Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal disorders, and vascular dementia. It is common for people to have mixed dementia – a combination of two or more disorders, at least one of which is dementia. For example, some people have both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

Emotional problems, such as stress, anxiety or depression, can make a person more forgetful and can be mistaken for dementia. For instance, someone who has recently retired or who is coping with the death of a spouse, relative or friend may feel sad, lonely, worried or bored. Trying to deal with these life changes leaves some people feeling confused or forgetful.

The confusion and forgetfulness caused by emotions usually are temporary and go away when the feelings fade. Emotional problems can be eased by supportive friends and family, but if these feelings last for a long time, it is important to get help from a doctor or counselor. Treatment may include counseling, medication or both. Being active and learning new skills can also help a person feel better and improve his or her memory.

Current Alzheimer’s medications and management strategies may temporarily improve symptoms. This can sometimes help people with Alzheimer’s disease maximize function and maintain independence for a little while longer. It’s important to seek supportive services and tap into your support network as early as possible.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

Disclaimer: This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through http://www.glennellis.com.

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