Forgetting where you put your glasses or keys is a common occurrence even in younger adults. But as we age, it seems that forgetfulness becomes more problematic and occurs more often. Still, few seniors understand what causes memory loss to begin with, and how can you tell if it’s something more serious. Understanding common memory loss is an important first step in determining if your forgetfulness might indicate a more serious condition.
Memory Loss Cause #1 – Poor Sleep
The average adult sleeps between 7 and 8.5 hours each night, and given how many responsibilities we tend to take on during the day, it can be very easy to slip on the need for a good night’s sleep. But, one of the biggest contributors to short term memory loss as well as larger memory issues is simply not getting enough rest. Studies show that about half of adults in the US have sleep disturbances, ranging from insomnia to shortened sleeping hours and nighttime waking.
Sleep issues tend to exacerbate as we march on into old age- in a recent survey of 2,500 men, those over age 70 had a 50% higher chance of having sleep issues than those aged 55. While men aged 55 reported sleep disturbances more often than women, people aged 70 and older of both genders reported similar rates of insomnia and other issues. Another issue that tends to worsen sleep issues is economic disparity- those living in poverty have a higher occurrence of sleep disturbances, particularly those with health issues as an underlying cause of their sleeplessness. Another factor affecting sleep and memory is alcohol- recent studies on alcoholism across different age groups show that sleep is most affected by alcohol in those over age 65.
If you have difficulty sleeping, the following tips may help you treat or curb insomnia:
- Follow a regular sleep schedule, and remove all distracting electronics, work, books, and other materials that might entice you out of bed.
- Use a white noise machine at night as a form of sound therapy
- Meditate and listen to calming music before bed to help relax your body and mind
- Wear a light-blocking sleep mask
Memory Loss Cause #2 – Over-medicating and Self-medicating with Alcohol
Self-medicating with alcohol, cigarettes, and other substances can affect our memory. While it is important to take your medications as prescribed, using several medications in a day is called polypharmacology, and further complicates health problems as well as the risk of overmedicating. Every added drug further complicates a potentially toxic cocktail, especially if you also drink alcohol. The most common drugs to be prescribed as one ages past 65 are hypertension medication, heart pills, and anti-diabetics. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has a guide for safe medication use for elders, and recommend the following list of questions to ask your doctor whenever you are prescribed something new:
- Why am I taking this medication?
- What specific times do I need to take it?
- Do I need to eat or drink when taking this?
- How long can I expect this medicine to start working?
- Will this interact with any of my other medications?
- Can I drive when I take this?
- What does “as needed” mean?
- What should I do if I forget a dose?
- What side effects can I expect?
- Will I be able to take my normal vitamins with this medicine?
When prescription medication fails to soothe our stress of the day, some may turn to alcohol, cigarettes (10% of those over 65 smoke), and sugar to help us relax, and these behaviors might have negative effects on our ability to remember and make good decisions. Poverty increases the risk of alcohol abuse in the elderly, in addition to being less educated or a racial minority. Drinking too much is most common among the oldest groups that were recently surveyed regarding their alcohol consumption. Studies show that all but very moderate alcohol consumption has an effect on the cognition of those over 65, primarily due to the medications a person takes. Before worrying too much about more serious causes like dementia, take a look at your alcohol consumption to see if it could be the culprit to your recent memory issues.
Memory Loss Cause #3 – Fitness
When surveyed regarding their exercise habits in 2016, only 12.7% of people over age 65 met national exercise standards, which is two and a half hours of aerobic exercise a week. Unsurprisingly, according to recent studies, nearly 75% of those over age 65 are overweight, or obese. Obesity is known to affect the brain in many ways, and can have a very negative impact on our memory and cognition.
Recent research into the processes behind obesity has given us two important ways the brain and fitness interact. Brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor (BDNF) is formed primarily in the brain, and studies show that consistent aerobic exercise increases production of BDNF, particularly in those over age 65, providing a wide range of surprising benefits. In addition to our new knowledge about BDNF, we have new research into the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and its interactions with insulin, obesity, and brain health. There are strong implications that both BDNF and the blood-brain barrier play a critical role in our continued ability to remember as we age, so it is a good idea to learn more about this new discovery.
BDNF has been linked to improved memory and overall health, and shows up less in the blood draws of those with depression than those without depression, as well as those with Alzheimer’s disease. BDNF is known to protect synapses that would otherwise be damaged due to normal aging processes, and A recent study showed that adults over age 65 who increased the intensity of their exercise programs over a three-month period experienced significant cognitive improvement in the areas of reasoning, memory, and mood.
The impact of good fitness on a healthy life is far-reaching and includes improved quality of life and memory. You don’t have to sign up for a gym membership or buy expensive home exercise equipment to increase your fitness. Simple exercise programs like swimming and yoga can provide gentle exercise that is easily adaptable to any disability or mobility issues. There is a wide range of affordable videos, equipment, and exercise machines available for those that want to keep up their fitness from the comfort and privacy of their own home.
If exercising isn’t your thing, activities that you might love that work up a sweat are just as effective, like golfing and gardening. Even just doing chores around the house can help you get to those 150 recommended minutes of exercise a week if it gets your blood pumping!
Memory Loss Cause #4 – Vitamin Deficiency
Nutritional deficiencies have been known to be the root of many ailments, from scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency, to osteoporosis, which is largely related to a lack of calcium and vitamin D in the diet. It is estimated that half of all elders are vitamin D deficient, and even less elders get enough vitamin C. Vitamin deficiency can cause mild to severe cognitive decline, so it’s important to be aware of your nutritional needs.
The vitamins that studies have shown to affect memory loss and cognition are:
- Vitamin A
- B12, known to aid cognition in healthy brains but is particularly helpful for dementia
- Folic acid
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
Your doctor will be able to guide you in what vitamins to take, keeping in mind your current prescriptions. It’s important to note that water is also a key ingredient to a well-maintained body, and dehydration is closely linked to cognitive decline. A recent survey reports that 56% of seniors drink less than six glasses of water a day, two less than the recommended daily amount. If you want to learn how to increase your water intake, read our guide on preventing dehydration.
Memory Loss Cause #5 – Depression and Anxiety
Severe depression or grief can sometimes cause forgetfulness and memory loss, as well as generally impacting your ability to concentrate. Feelings of sadness, extreme grief at the loss of a loved one, and other emotional trauma can result in feeling ‘out of touch’, or ‘in a fog’ and forgetting small details.
Anxiety affects between 3% and 15% of older adults, according to Mental Health America, and recent studies show that 2.2% of elders report serious psychological distress during the 30 days prior to the survey. Those aged 45-65 reported distress 4.4% of the time, and also report a high level of anxiety. There are many distressing symptoms of anxiety, including:
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Inability to concentrate
- Lack of short-term memory
- Fear of dying
There are many reasons a person can become anxious, from family problems, life changes, money issues, and health worries. Regardless of the reason behind your anxiety, there are a variety of ways you can deal with your difficult feelings at home, and options for when depression and anxiety become hard to live with:
- Mindfulness meditation has been proven to help anxiety in those suffering from depression as well as issues like PTSD
- Physical exercise is known to abate depression and anxiety, and moving around, especially outside, can help you feel much better, quickly
- Relaxing in a soothing environment, with some of your favorite tea, a dark room with quiet music, and some time alone to breathe can help curb many symptoms of anxiety
- The national crisis line (1-800-273-8255) is available for when you are unable to calm down- a trained professional will help talk you through your anxiety and help you discover local resources
Memory Loss Cause #6 – Head Trauma
Minor Head Trauma (MHT) may be sustained from even a minor from a fall or accident, and can cause memory loss due to damage to the brain. In addition to the initial trauma, problems are often compounded by the body’s inflammatory response, which can make the brain swell or shrink, depending on the situation, making even a short fall have the potential for dramatic consequences. Every fall should be reported to your primary care doctor, so they can assess you for any type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). TBI is attributed to many symptoms that impair our ability to function, such as:
- Short-term memory loss
- Inability to cope with stress, and episodes of aggression
- Balance issues
- Inability to hold your urine
- Change in appetite and sleeping patterns, as well as personality
Falls are the most common cause of TBI in older adults; with 60% of TBI in those over 65 being attributed to a fall. Patients over 75 having the highest occurrence of falls resulting in TBI, hospitalization, and death. Because clinical observation can miss up to 30% of TBI, a computerized brain scan is recommended to verify no brain swelling or shrinkage occurs after a fall.
Memory Loss Cause #7 – Thyroid Problems
According to recent clinical studies, hypothyroidism is present in about 5% of people over the age of 65, and women are almost three times as likely to have thyroid issues. Hyperthyroidism is just as dangerous, both to sleep and overall health, and research shows that 15% of people diagnosed with an overactive thyroid are over the age of 65.
As we grow older, it becomes harder to determine is thyroid issues are even present- people over 70 often have no obvious signs of a thyroid disorder, as the symptoms are also present with other issues they are facing due to aging. It is estimated that 20% of those over 65 suffer from some type of thyroid disorder. Little is known about how exactly thyroid disorders affect memory, but research shows a clear link between memory loss and hypo as well as hyperthyroidism. Speak to your doctor to find out more about your thyroid health and if there is anything you can do to help improve your memory.
Memory Loss Cause #8 – Diabetes
Studies show that among people aged 65 and older, 26% have diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes, and one in five are prescribed a medication to combat diabetes, causing an additional set of potential issues for cognition. Sufferers of diabetes are already aware of the effects of hypo- or hyper-glycemia on memory and overall mood, and it is clinically proven that diabetes tends to have dramatic effects on cognition.
If you suspect diabetes might be the culprit of your recent memory issues, please reach out to your doctor for a check-up. They can easily and quickly check your blood sugar levels with a quick finger prick, and administer further tests if it seems likely that diabetes is the problem. The doctor will be able to prescribe insulin and other medication if you need them, but there are still a few things recommended by the American Diabetes Association that you’ll need to do at home, and should start before you are diagnosed as diabetic:
- Eat right- it might be obvious to avoid excessive sugar, but did you know that simple diet changes such as reducing gluten intake and increasing healthy fats can naturally keep your blood sugar regulated?
- Drink plenty of water
- Sleep well
- Exercise 150 minutes a week, and take evening walks to keep your blood sugars low throughout the night
Memory Loss Cause #9 – Brain Tumors
Tumors in the brain can sometimes cause symptoms similar to dementia. The tumor kills brain cells as it grows, resulting in memory loss. Depending on the location of the tumor, the amount of memory loss will differ between individuals. Recent studies show that over half of all cancer patients exhibit symptoms of memory loss that can be confused with dementia- 90% of these symptoms were related to verbal memory and how quickly the study participants could bring up memories and solve problems. Research shows that chemotherapy can directly cause cognitive impairment, but it is widely acknowledged that memory loss and cancer are both intricate issues that more likely have a number of causes, rather than just one medication.
Some symptoms of brain issues that indicate you need to visit a neurologist include:
- Sudden or severe eyesight problems, like double and blurred vision
- Difficulty walking and speaking
- Sudden dramatic changes in the senses, like smelling something that isn’t there and hearing things (auditory hallucinations)
- Unexplained vomiting
Memory Loss Cause #10 – Dementia
An obvious explanation to worsening memory issues, particularly the ability to remember recent events, names, and phone numbers, is Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. While not all older adults suffer from memory-related diseases, the risk of developing dementia increases with age. New advancements in technology have made it possible to detect Alzheimer’s disease in your doctor’s office with a simple eye test, and there are many cognitive tests that can also be performed to help figure out the exact nature of your memory issues, so be sure to reach out to your doctor if you suspect your memory issues are becoming a problem for you.
Caring for a Loved One with Dementia
It’s important to recognize when memory loss causes a deeper level of concern. While many older adults might have some forgetfulness, when the lack of memory starts to interfere with normal functioning it is a sign that medical intervention might be necessary. Memory loss is sometimes treatable and even curable, but, as with any medical condition, the prognosis depends on the cause. Be sure to reach out to your doctor or help in figuring out if dementia is the underlying cause of your memory problems.
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, many people rely on their loved ones to help them manage their symptoms. It is common for elders to want to age in their own homes for as long as possible, but ultimately most people end up needing specialized medical services from an assisted living facility. Depending on your care needs, there are a few different types of facilities.
When facing dementia, the biggest concern is usually safety- especially concerning wandering. The benefit of a memory care unit is that it is always secured around the clock, by awake security and nurses as well as electronically locked exits and doors. However, many assisted living facilities and independent living communities offer secured units for those facing mild to moderate dementia symptoms that don’t yet require full memory care. See our blog that explains the different types of assisted living here.
Get expert advice from professional caregivers on dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in our free Caregiver’s Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease.