Memory Problems

June is Alzheimer's & Brain Awareness Month. If you or someone you care about are concerned about memory issues, read on to learn more.

There are many reasons people have memory problems, including simply getting older. But the cause can be more serious, like dementia. Your clinician can help figure out the cause of your memory problems. For some people, there are treatments that might be helpful.

I seem to forget things more often these days. Should I be worried?

A lot of people forget things more often as they get older. Sometimes, it just takes older people a little longer to remember things. For example, a name may be "on the tip of your tongue" but it can take a few minutes to actually call it to mind. 

What is the difference between forgetfulness and dementia? 

Forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. People who have serious changes in their memory, personality and behavior suffer from a form of brain disease called dementia. If you cannot remember the name of the movie you saw last week, that is normal aging. If your memory problems are interfering with the activities you do daily, that may be dementia. 

People with dementia may:

  • Ask the same questions over and over again
  • Get lost in places they know well
  • Have a hard time following directions
  • Forget whether it is day or night
  • Forget to bathe or eat meals

What causes memory problems?

Many things can cause memory problems including dehydration, poor nutrition, bad reactions to medicine and some diseases. Sometimes older people feel sad, worried, or lonely, and that can make them forgetful. Most of these problems can be treated. It's important to talk to your doctor about how you are feeling so that he or she can help you take care of yourself.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a term used to describe memory problems that are serious enough to affect the activities of daily living. 

What is Alzheimer's disease?

Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer's disease usually begins slowly and may become steadily worse with symptoms ranging from mild forgetfulness to problems performing daily activities.

What is vascular dementia? 

Some people suffer a series of small strokes, or changes in the brain's blood supply, that can affect memory. Someone who becomes forgetful suddenly may have this kind of dementia. People like this may show improvement or their condition may stay the same for a long time, and then quickly worsen if more strokes occur. High blood pressure may be to blame for this kind of dementia. One of the most important reasons to keep your blood pressure under control is to prevent strokes.

How can my doctor tell what's causing my memory problems?

Your doctor will start with a physical exam. He or she will ask what prescription and over-the-counter drugs you are taking, what medical problems you have had in the past, and how you are feeling emotionally. It can be helpful to bring a family member along to your doctor's appointment to help you remember all the facts. If your doctor believes that your problem might be serious, he or she may refer you to a specialist for tests.

What is the treatment for dementia?

For some people, prescription medicines such as Aricept, Exelon, or Razadyne may keep symptoms from getting worse. In other cases, controlling your blood pressure, treating high cholesterol and diabetes, and not smoking may help prevent future strokes.

Is there anything I can do to help improve my memory?

You have the ability to keep learning all your life. There are many things you can do to help keep your mind nimble and quick. 

In addition to exercising your mind with the ideas that follow, exercising your body can help, too. Studies show that physical activity raises the level of hormones that help the areas of the brain involved in learning, memory, and recognition.

Several studies suggest that participation in mentally stimulating activities may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Other studies are not so sure about this. Although there is no absolute proof that using your brain power lowers your risk of developing Alzheimer's or any other kind of dementia, staying productive and creative can't hurt. At the very least, mental activity helps keep you alert and can play a part in warding off depression. 

Keep your brain active by

  • Playing card games and board games 
  • Doing jigsaw or crossword puzzles 
  • Reading or listening to books on tape 
  • Traveling or going out with friends 
  • Taking adult education or college courses 
  • Writing letters, a journal, or your memoirs 

Memory skills

Your mind works best at remembering useful and interesting information. But your memory may not be as good when you are rushed, upset, or tired. Relax and take control. Choose what you will remember. Each of your senses and emotions can provide cues. Use them to record your memories.

Source: This content of this article is produced by MGH/PCOI. MGH patients can find this in the Resources section of Patient Gateway, under Partners Care Advice (PCOI), along with patient handouts about many other health & wellness topics. The titles used here are: Memory Problems and Memory Exercises.

This document is not a substitute for your care team's medical advice and should not be relied upon for treatment for specific medical conditions.

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