By age 85, most of us have a loved one with the disease or suffer from significant memory loss ourselves. When is memory loss significant? When is it time for an aged person or a someone with an aging parent to worry? This article will try to answer these questions.
Memory loss has many causes. Some such as depression, thyroid disorders and pernicious anemia can be treated. Many conditions may have partial remedies. These conditions include multiple tiny strokes in smokers (stop!), people with high blood pressure and those with high blood sugars or certain heart rhythm disturbances.
The most common serious cause is Alzheimer Disease. This diagnosis is then made after a careful search for other causes. In this condition there has been degeneration and death of nerve cells and their connections to other nerve cells in the brain. This disease can only be proven by looking at brain samples through a microscope. This is why when you ask a doctor point-blank if your loved one has Alzheimer Disease, you may receive a round-about answer.
The first step will be to rule out treatable causes with a history and physical examination, along with some blood tests. Regular head scans (CT scans) are often not helpful because they do not pick up findings needed for a diagnosis. CT scans are helpful to exclude blood collections in the brain or tumours. But these conditions can often be determined by the history of the memory loss and physical examination. Biopsies of the brain are not done except in very unusual cases.
Memory loss means a person is not able to recall information. Depending on the way the memory loss occurs, the patient, family and doctor can usually decide when the problem has put a person in danger. Three of the questions doctors most often ask the family are:
If a person with memory loss is living alone, home safety, nutrition and correct medication use are the most common concerns. Lack of self-care (not bathing, shaving or cleaning) is another worry.
People who think they may be losing their memories ought to see a doctor to learn if there is real evidence of this. The complaints may be symptoms of other conditions such as depression. These conditions can exist side by side, so sometimes it can be difficult to be sure about diagnosis without looking beyond memory loss.
Often the doctor will repeat the memory tests every six months to see if things are getting better, staying the same or getting worse. Only then can the doctor say whether the problem is due to 'possible' or 'probable' Alzheimer Disease or 'Dementia of the Alzheimer Type' or 'Alzheimer Type Dementia' - these terms all mean the same thing.
Memory loss often varies. Memories from the old days are often clearer than memory of what happened yesterday. Memory loss will also vary from day to day. A person's memory will often be worse when over-tired, stressed or ill. Someone may cope well in a familiar setting such as at home but do less well in a less familiar setting such as an airport. This should be kept in mind when planning activities.
Memory aids or reminders - such as calendars, phone calls or a Dosette™ for medication - can be helpful for those with mild memory loss. As memory loss increases, more direct supervision with activities will be needed.
A person's ability to manage financial affairs is often a difficult but necessary area to assess. Ask yourself if your relative is able to pay the bills and manage money. If not, you will need to check into having a trustee appointed. A lawyer can help you with all the details.
Once your doctor has established that memory loss exists, you may be referred to the local Alzheimer Society - even if you don't have Alzheimer Disease. This society has information, counselling and support for people with memory loss and their families. Much can be done to ease the frustration and fear that accompanies memory loss. It makes sense to approach a group whose members are expert. Often these people also have loved ones with the condition.
Social Day Cares exist in many areas, along with paid volunteers who can give short-term relief for caregivers of those with memory loss. The Alzheimer Society can work with you and your doctor to help your family function at its best for as long as possible.