The following are common warning signs that memory problems may be more than everyday forgetfulness and should therefore warrant a medical evaluation:
- Memory problems that affect job performance or interfere with everyday functioning
- Difficulties with language, such as frequently forgetting simple words or substituting inappropriate words
- Disorientation in familiar locales or in familiar situations
- Confusion about time of day, month, season, or decade
- Decreased or unusually poor judgment
- Memory problems accompanied by other symptoms such as extreme fatigue, loss of interest in activities that are typically enjoyed, rapid or unusual changes in mood, agitation, listlessness, problems with balance and coordination, headaches, vision problems, numbness, shortness of breath, or chest pain
It's important to keep in mind that there are a variety of factors that can cause memory problems, from stress and depression to vitamin deficiencies and circulatory problems; not all memory impairments signify the onset of Alzheimer's disease. That's why a thorough medical evaluation is needed when memory problems are out of the ordinary or cause concern. Once the underlying cause is determined, it can often be treated, and the memory problems remedied as a result. Sometimes, the memory problems are simply the result of gradual changes that occur in the human brain as we get older. As we all know, memory can change as a result of age, and some of the most common lifestyle factors and medical problems can also cause memory impairment.
How to Get HelpIf you're truly worried about lapses in memory, you should discuss it with your doctor, who can give you a brief test to evaluate your memory and/or refer you to a psychologist or other specialist who can give you a battery of tests of memory, problem solving, counting, and language. Odds are, you'll be completely reassured after the tests show that your memory is more or less just about the same as everyone else's in your age bracket.
If your results suggest there may be some memory loss, your doctor will want to rule out physical causes of memory problems, such as alcohol abuse, drug use, sleep disorders, head injury, or any vascular problem such as a stroke or hardening of the arteries. Your doctor also might want to check for untreated diabetes or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Be prepared to give your doctor full details about all medications, herbs, or supplements you take, since some drugs and supplements can affect memory.
In addition, your doctor may order tests of blood and urine or a brain CT scan to help rule out brain disorders. A scan may also show signs of normal age-related changes in the brain. It may be necessary to have another scan at a later date to see if there have been further changes in the brain.
Even when memory problems have a physical cause, learning and practicing memory skills can be helpful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Richard C. Mohs, Ph.D., has been vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and associate chief of staff for research at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The author or co-author of more than 300 scientific papers, Dr. Mohs has conducted numerous research studies on aging, Alzheimer's disease, and cognitive function.