Fading Memory

There is more to forgetfulness than what meets the mind

Elderly personScience tells us that it is not unusual for most people to remain both observant and proficient as they age, though they may often take time to remember things.

Not long ago, memory loss and confusion were thought to be a normal part of aging. It is, according to new studies, not always the case.

Agreed, that, many people experience memory lapses – in their varying degrees. However, not all memory problems are serious, although there may be others that are.

When people exhibit serious changes in their memory, personality, and behaviour, which may affect their day-to-day activities, they may possibly suffer from a form of brain disease, or dementia [impaired memory].

Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia.


Dementia represents a group of symptoms caused by changes in brain function. The condition is marked by symptoms such as asking the same questions repeatedly, getting lost in familiar, or known places, or not able to comprehend directions, including a disoriented relationship with time, people, and places. In addition, patients may not take account of personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition. The condition has different effects on different people. Hence, people often lose their abilities at different levels and pace.

A host of conditions indicates dementia. While some conditions that cause dementia can be reversed, others don’t respond to treatment. Also, many conditions imitate Alzheimer’s disease, though they may not have the classical signs and symptoms of the disorder. In addition, not all conditions can be treated with medications. Also, the response rates with medical treatment are not always encouraging, or perceptible.

Difference, inference

Reversible forms of memory loss, or dementia, may be triggered by high fever, dehydration, vitamin deficiency or poor nutrition, certain medications, thyroid gland disorders, or even a minor head injury. These are also serious medical conditions that cause memory lapses – they need to be treated by a doctor as quickly and briskly as may be possible.

Dementia is often mistaken in elder or older people, even in the absence of classical symptoms. Those with retirement blues, for example, may display certain symptoms – they may feel sad, lonely, or worried, not knowing what their post-retirement life holds for them.

Also, certain symptoms may result following bereavement – the loss of a spouse, relative, or friend. While adaptation is not easy in some individuals, a change in circumstance can push some people to become confused, or restless. Problems, in such instances, can often be relieved through social contact, and by friends and family. As for those who don’t seem to get a “hold” on their emotions, professional help from a doctor or counsellor will often help one cope with the situation.

Alzheimer’s disease and multi-infarct dementia [vascular dementia] are the two most common forms of dementia in older people. In the latter, a series of small strokes or changes in the brain’s blood supply system results in the death of brain tissue. The location of the stroke actually determines the seriousness of the problem and also the symptoms that emerge. The two are irreversible conditions — beyond the hope of a cure. They may also co-exist.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease

The cause/s in Alzheimer’s disease is not difficult to comprehend. Nerve cell changes in certain parts of the brain often result in the death of a large number of cells. Slow in onset, Alzheimer’s disease has a tendency to worsen gradually. Once the disease gets entrenched, symptoms may range from mild forgetfulness to serious aberrations in thinking and judgment, including the inability to perform daily chores. In its most severe form, Alzheimer’s patients cannot take care of themselves. They would need institutional care.

Symptoms that begin suddenly may be a sign of multi-infract dementia. Patients with the disorder are quite likely to show signs of improvement with treatment. Curiously, they remain stable for long periods of time and also as quickly develop new symptoms if more strokes occur. The usual cause of multi-infarct dementia is most often high blood pressure. Enough reason, why the control of high blood pressure, needs to be instituted promptly, and effectively, to avert strokes.

Stress, anxiety, or depression can also sometimes bring about forgetfulness. But, the effects in such cases are temporary. If the feelings persist for a long period of time, getting professional help is crucial.

Seek professional help

People who think they have memory problems should see their doctor immediately. If the problem is severe, a thorough physical, neurological, and psychiatric examination is instituted, followed by a complete medical examination for memory loss.

Criteria of referral may include gathering information about the person’s medical history, use of prescription and over-the-counter [OTC] medicines, diet, past medical history, and general health. A correct diagnosis, needless to say, would be dependent on recalling symptom-details accurately. It is also possible for the doctor to ask a family member for additional information about the affected person.

While routine tests [blood and urine] may be advised to ascertain any problem, there are a number of tests for mental abilities, as regards memory, problem solving, counting, and language. They are all used to help the doctor arrive at a diagnosis.

In the clinical setting, a brain CT scan is done to rule out certain problems. While a scan may show signs of normal age-related changes in the brain, a follow-up scan is often necessary to ascertain further changes, if any, in the brain.

Things to Do

The most irreversible forms of memory loss need to be addressed, despite the fact there is no cure. The objective is to help the patient and the family cope with the disorder. While people with memory loss [dementia] need to be under a doctor’s care, it is not uncommon for them to be seen by a neurologist, psychiatrist, family doctor, internist, or geriatrician. The idea works two-fold: it helps to treat the patient’s physical and behavioural problems and also addresses questions of the person or family in order to ease immediate, or long-term, concerns.

Diet and care

A balanced diet helps maintain overall good health and also plays a role in preventing more serious problems. Also, patients with dementia need to be assisted in order to continue their daily routines, physical activities, and social contacts. They should be kept informed about what is happening around them and in the world – including the time of day, or where they live. Some patients do well with memory aids – or, mnemonics – to cope with their day-to-day living. They may also be encouraged to use a big calendar, make “to-do” lists or daily plans, or write notes about simple safety measures, and also describe how to use common household items.

The brain is believed to shrink [atrophy] as we grow older. This is said to make us less able to think or move quickly, eventually leading to forgetfulness and senile dementia.

It does not, however, cost anything for patients with memory loss, or dementia, to keep their smartness card up. Researchers say that certain simple activities may be useful –

  • Hobbies, including crosswords and puzzles, that stimulate both the mind and body
  • Physical fitness and exercise for a healthy state of mind
  • Avoidance of alcoholic beverages – because, heavy drinking can cause permanent brain damage
  • Complementary therapies such as breathing techniques and physical movements, including relaxation [meditation], and yoga, are said to promote healthy, steady breathing and also promote a clear, untroubled mind.
Rajgopal Nidamboor
Dr Rajgopal Nidamboor, a trained physician, is a writer, commentator, and author. In a career spanning 25 years, Nidamboor has published over 2,000 articles, on a variety of subjects, two coffee table books, an E-book, and a primer on therapeutics, aside from an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy.


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