Forgetfulness: Do I Have Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease?
You forget where you put your keys. You walk into a room and forget what you went in for. You even forget a lunch date with your close friend. Forgetting things occasionally is normal, and as we age, forgetting things becomes more common. But when should you worry about your forgetfulness being a sign of a type of dementia including Alzheimer's disease?
Normal Age-Related Memory Loss
According to the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Aging, forgetfulness is a normal part of aging for some people. You may find it more difficult to learn new things, can't remember information as well as you once did, or lose things more often1. Most of the time, these memory lapses are not something you need to be concerned about and are considered normal.
There are several indicators you can use to decide if you should be concerned about your memory lapses. Please know that these indicators are not meant to help you diagnose yourself. If you are worried about your memory, it's always best to address your concerns with your physician.
Memory Related Issues That Are Considered Normal
- Writing notes to yourself to help remind you of things.
- Writing appointments on your calendar or setting reminder alarms on your phone.
- Occasional forgetfulness of more complex words while speaking.
- Forgetting where you placed an item that is rarely used.
- Forgetting the name of someone you rarely speak to and don't have a long history with.
This things are considered normal and generally are not cause for concern. As we discuss later on in this article, it is when you start forgetting things like commonly used words, where you placed items frequently used, basic daily tasks, names of close family and friends, or experience mood changes associated with your forgetfulness that you should be concerned.
What Causes Dementia?
Alzheimer's Disease is one form of dementia and what exactly causes dementia, and it's various forms, isn't fully understood by modern medicine yet. However, it has been observed that certain proteins inside brain tissue seem to go awry in patients suffering from dementia2. These are "TDP-43" and "FUS" proteins.
While these proteins generally travel around inside the cells of your brain tissue, a patient showing signs of dementia will often have these proteins left sitting stationary in the wrong areas of their respective cells. Unusual clumps of these proteins have also been observed inside the brain tissue of affected individuals.
Although these are some recent observations that scientists have made, it is still not fully understood how these issues with the proteins in the brain occur in dementia patients. Many scientist theorize that the functions of the brain's cells degrade differently within some individuals as they age, causing this malfunction within the cell.
Alzheimer's Disease is a specific form of dementia. Therefor it is often very difficult to tell the difference between Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of dementia. Only a specialist can make this determination.
Signs of Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease
- Repeatedly forgetting simple things.
- Reminders still leave you confused as to what they are referring to.
- Increasingly consistent trouble recalling certain words and replacing them with unusual substitutes.
- Misplacing things in unusual areas (i.e. car keys in the refrigerator, purse in the stove etc).
- Becoming disoriented in familiar areas.
- Forgetting to do routine activities.
- Poor judgement.
- Increasing difficulty in making decisions.
- Personality changes or mood swings.
- Loss of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.
Repeatedly Forgetting Simple Things
While it is normal to forget things from time to time, if you're finding that you are repeatedly forgetting things throughout the day, it may be cause for concern. This is especially true if you are noticing that the frequency in which this happens is increasing.
Reminders Still Leave You Confused as to What They Are Referring To
Do you write yourself notes, stick them to your computer or refridgerator, and then forget what they are referring to? If so, you may be suffering from early dementia.
Increasingly Consistent Trouble Recalling Certain Words
As dementia progresses, you may forget words or replace them with odd substitutes that don't make sense. This can make communication difficult. While it's normal to forget a word occasionally, forgetting words often, isn't.
Misplacing Things in Unusual Areas
You may find yourself misplacing things in unusual places. For example, you might find your cell phone in the freezer or microwave.
Becoming Disoriented in Familiar Places
You may also find that you become disoriented in familiar places. You may find yourself getting lost on your way home from work or the store, for instance. This will be in spite of being very familiar with these areas in the past.
Forgetting to do Routine Activities
If you're forgetting to do routine things, such as picking your spouse up from work or feeding your pet, there is reason for concern. In addition, forgetting to bathe, brush your teeth, or eat also indicates a likely problem with dementia. You may also find it difficult to manage your money. It is not uncommon for individuals with dementia to forget to pay their bills on a regular basis.
Another sign of dementia is problems with judgment. For example, do you find yourself going out on a freezing day without a coat? Do you turn on the stove and leave the house? If you're finding yourself making decisions that put your health and safety at risk, it's definitely time to have a conversation with your doctor.
Increasing Difficulty in Making Decisions
Difficulty making decisions can also indicate a possible problem with dementia. Do you find it difficult to decide what to eat or where to go? Or, do you find yourself forgetting how to act in certain social situations due to indecisiveness? These struggles may be cause for concern.
Personality Changes or Mood Swings
Personality changes are also an indicator that you may have dementia. You may notice that you experience rapid mood swings, going from happy to angry within a matter of seconds. You may find yourself becoming irritated, depressed, anxious, or suspicious, especially when you're having memory problems.
Loss of Interest, Enthusiasm, or Concern
Another common indicator of dementia is becoming increasingly apathetic. You may find yourself sleeping more than usual, losing interest in your hobbies, or sitting in front of your television for hours at a time.
Other Causes of Memory Problems
According to the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Aging, serious memory problems can be the result of several medical conditions1.
Tumors, blood clots, infections in the brain, head injuries, such as concussions, medication side effects, consuming too much alcohol, and some kidney, liver, and thyroid conditions can cause serious memory problems. Stress, depression, and anxiety can also cause you to become more forgetful.
Once the associated medical or emotional problems are treated, however, the forgetfulness should lessen.
When to See a Doctor
If you're experiencing repeated memory lapses or other signs of dementia, such as difficulty making decisions, personality changes, and becoming disoriented in familiar places, you should talk to your doctor.
Make a list of your symptoms as well as when they began. Try to list specific examples of your symptoms. Make a list of all of your current medications as well as any over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and dietary supplements you take and their doses. You should also make a list of all of your current and past medical problems. List any family members who had memory problems as well.
At your appointment, your doctor will take a detailed medical and family history and review your medications with you. It may be helpful to bring a family member or friend with you to your appointment to help answer questions. A family member or friend can report what he or she has observed over time.
Your doctor will likely conduct question-and-answer tests with you during your appointment to help him gauge your ability to remember and your other cognitive skills. Your doctor will likely also run some routine tests in order to rule out medical causes for the memory problems. For instance, blood tests can help rule out kidney, liver, and thyroid problems. Your doctor may also order some brain imaging tests to look for other reversible medical causes of your memory problems.
When in doubt, consult with your doctor!
Getting a Diagnosis
Once a diagnosis has been made, your doctor can help you come up with an appropriate care plan. If you have a medical condition that's causing your memory problems, it can likely be treated.
Though the prospect of dementia is scary, having a dementia diagnosis can help you make plans for your future care with your family. If you have dementia, there are medications that can slow its progression providing you with a better quality of life.
Your doctor can help you identify community resources and organizations that can help you and your loved ones cope with dementia. He can also help you identify care facilities and home-care options, should they be necessary.
Having a diagnosis also allows you to get all of your legal and financial affairs in order. You'll be able to appoint your power of attorney, make a living will, and make your care preferences known.
As you age, it is normal to forget things occasionally. As your brain changes, you may even find yourself forgetting things more often than you used to. However, if you find yourself forgetting things repeatedly, experiencing personality changes, having trouble making decisions, or getting confused when doing routine things, it's cause for concern.
Talk to your doctor about your memory problems and other symptoms so that he or she can help you determine the cause. When you have a diagnosis, you'll be able to work with your doctor, community organizations, and family to help you get the care you need.
1. "Do Memory Problems Always Mean Alzheimer's Disease?" January 24, 2018. National Institute on Aging. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
2. "What happens in the brain in dementia?" March 8, 2016. Alzheimer's Research UK. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
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