When does memory loss become a serious issue?

At the care home where I volunteer I find that almost all the residents have some level of memory loss. From forgetting my name after a week to not knowing who I am half way through a game of scrabble. I’ve always known that older people become absent-minded, but never really considered what is at the crux of its cause. Taking my curiosity further, I’ve decided to research into the causes of memory loss and how we can diagnose when symptoms get serious.

Memory loss (amnesia) means when a person cannot recall past events that they would usually be able to remember. Such simple symptoms can be linked to more severe diseases, however it is normal to become forgetful with age; so when do we need to worry?

Memories are classified into 3 different types – immediate, short term and long term memory. Short term memory is processed in the pre-frontal lobe at the front of the brain. The hippocampus then translates this into long term memory. The neurons that link memories will soon become fixed combinations so that things you remember you will then associate with other things that were happening at the same time. Hence, memory is a complex feature of the human body, but what causes this ability to deteriorate?

The 3 types of memory
The 3 types of memory

The most common causes of memory loss are depression, stress and anxiety; all of which cause the person to not concentration fully and so not remember things in the first place. Older people will often express differences in their personality with strange behaviour like hoarding or bad temper. Antidepressants are best for treating this type, which can alleviate problems quickly if the person is younger as they will only mostly forget small things. Accidents that result in head injury are another main cause, as well as strokes which cut off some of the blood supply to the brain. The consequences of this cause can be more extreme where people forget events that happened before the accident which is known as retrograde amnesia, or anterograde amnesia; where you forget everything that occurred after the trauma.

Less common causes include having an underactive thyroid which is a gland in your neck that produces hormones which regulate the body’s metabolism. Treatments for other conditions such as Parkinson’s disease may have a side effect of memory loss. Misusing alcohol for a long period of time, bleeding of the brain, vitamin B1 deficiency, a brain tumour; all can result in forgetfulness. There are also two others types of amnesia; firstly transient global amnesia which is caused by blood flow problems to part of the brain, and secondly psychogenic amnesia which involves a stressful event that causes someone to block out their memory.

How memories are stored in the brain
How memories are stored in the brain

So when does memory loss reach the extent to which it is classified as dementia? 40% of people over the age of 65 years have a type of memory loss, but only 15% will develop dementia, nevertheless dementia affects 1 in 14 people 65. Therefore, you are unlikely to get dementia if you are under the age of 65 years, and memory loss will develop very gradually. Hence, you and those around you are likely to take your symptoms seriously for a while. The speed at which symptoms progress depends on what is causing the dementia.  Vascular dementia results in symptoms developing suddenly and quickly getting worse, whereas dementia with Lewy bodies may include more symptoms such as hallucinations, and frontotemporal dementia includes changes in emotion and language problems.

Hence, the term “memory loss” covers a broad range of conditions. Although most do not have a cure there are tips for those coping with such symptoms. To remember simple everyday things keep items in the same place and do your daily routine in the same order each time. Keep record of information and keep a diary if you are working. An alarm may help for tasks such as cooking and repeating important information once being told will help you recall it.

In conclusion, when I next visit the care home I intend to enquire of any residents that are suffering amnesia and will try and link one of the possible causes to their symptoms. To find out more about memory loss visit: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/memory-loss/Pages/Introduction.aspx, or for more about the way the brain stores memories go to: http://www.livescience.com/32798-how-are-memories-stored-in-the-brain.html.

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