Our brains change as we age, and it’s normal to have some slowing of memory and thinking. But when memory problems interfere with daily living, or if you begin to forget things you’ve known all your life, it’s time to seek help. The Tulane Health System Neuroscience Center’s team has the experience to recognize, treat and manage Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that affect memory, and to help you maintain functioning and independence as long as possible.
How Does Aging Affect Memory?
People often call them “senior moments”—those lapses in memory that are aggravating but usually harmless. You walk into a room and forget why you came. You just had your reading glasses, and now they’ve vanished. You make a grocery list, and then leave it on the refrigerator when you go to the store.
The truth is, some forgetfulness is normal and may get worse as we age. Our brains reach peak size while we are in our 20s, and blood flow to the brain decreases a bit as we grow older. We may forget certain things more easily, and it can be harder to learn new things than it was in years past.
The good news is that staying mentally and physically active can help you stay sharp, and most of the time, minor memory lapses are not a sign of Alzheimer’s or any other disease. You can adapt to subtle changes in memory and thinking by establishing routines and using associations or other memory aids.
When Should I Seek Help?
Memory lapses can be frightening as you grow older. Many people fear they are developing Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Everyone ages a little differently, but severe memory loss is not a normal part of aging, especially if you forget things that you have known a long time or if your memory loss is affecting your daily life or putting you or others in danger. Any time you are concerned about memory loss, talk to your doctor.
Many things can temporarily affect your memory, such as:
- Stress and anxiety
- Medication side effects or interactions
- Poor nutrition
- Substance abuse
Your doctor can help you determine whether you need a neurological evaluation. In most cases, you will need a referral from your doctor to make an appointment at the Tulane Neuroscience Center. Whatever the cause of your memory problems, it’s best to know as soon as possible so you can take steps to maintain your functioning and independence, and to prepare for the future.
What Disorders Can Cause Memory Loss?
Dementia is what most people fear when they start having memory problems. Actually, memory loss is just one sign of dementia. It’s an umbrella term that also includes problems with reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills.
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. It results from abnormal clumps in the brain called amyloid plaques and tangled bundles of fibers called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles.
Other diseases that can cause dementia include:
- Vascular dementia. This condition is a result of brain damage from stroke or other cerebrovascular or cardiovascular problems.
- Lewy body dementia. This disease results from abnormal deposits of a protein in the brain. The deposits are called Lewy bodies.
- Frontotemporal dementia. This condition involves the degeneration of nerve cells in the frontal or temporal lobes of the brain.
- Huntington’s disease. This hereditary disease causes degeneration in the brain and spinal cord.
- Cerutsfeldt-Jakob disease. The cause of this disease is still uncertain.
How are These Disorders Diagnosed?
There is no single test to tell you that you have dementia. Our team will conduct a full neurological evaluation, checking your reflexes, eye movement, speech, sensation and coordination. We’ll ask questions about your medical and family history, medications and other things that might be causing or contributing to your condition. Some types of brain imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans, can help identify other conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
How are These Disorders Treated?
Dementia cannot be cured or reversed, but many medications can help reduce symptoms in some people. Other medicines can help with anxiety or depression that often accompanies dementia.
An important part of dementia care is support for you and your family. We can link you with counseling and other services to help you cope and plan for the future. We can help you deal with problems and challenges as they arise, and we’ll help you understand what to expect and how to prepare for it.
Research into Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is ongoing and promising. The Tulane Neuroscience Center is committed to contributing to this growing body of knowledge and applying it to help our patients and those who care for them.
Many organizations and agencies are committed to improving care for those with dementia and supporting those affected, including caretakers and loved ones. Here are some good places to start:
- Medline Plus from the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine:
- National Institute on Aging
- The Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center from the National Institute on Aging
- The Alzheimer’s Association