Memory loss – not always Alzheimer’s

Published 3:02 pm Tuesday, May 24, 2011

So much is written about Alzheimer’s, and many of us see it personally with aging parents or loved ones.

But is forgetfulness always an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease?

No. Forgetfulness is a symptom of Alzheimer’s, but there are many other problems that can lead to memory loss that aren’t related to Alzheimer’s disease. Here are some of the non-Alzheimer’s causes of memory loss that you may wish to consider if you’re showing signs of forgetfulness:

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Chronic stress – Daily tension and anxiety about bills, work issues, relationship problems and family disputes, if not resolved, can become chronic stress and over time create problems with the brain’s ability to retain and recall new information.

Other causes include lack of, or interrupted sleep. Lack of sleep puts stress on the brain and that can manifest as memory loss.

Depression – Depression that lasts more than two weeks actually begins to impact the chemistry in the brain. Low levels of serotonin in the brain impair concentration and focus and that in turn can impact memory.

Focusing on sad events like the loss of a loved one for more than a few weeks is often a sign of clinical depression and may include signs of short-term memory loss.

Medicines – Drugs are wonders of science that can eliminate pain, cure illness and improve the quality of our lives. But they can also impact our brains and our ability to remember.

Drug interaction and side effects can occur among older patients who take multiple prescriptions. If there’s been a new medicine added or a change to your dosage and you begin having symptoms of memory loss or other problems, tell your doctor.

Some medicines have known side effects that include memory loss. These medicines include some (not all) cholesterol statins, sleeping pills and sedatives, anti-anxiety drugs and medicines prescribed for incontinence. Read the information on every drug you receive and pay particular attention to the list of known side effects.

Even the most benign vitamin may have an effect on the workings of other more potent medicines and the side effects can be difficult to trace back to the actual cause.

Thyroid gland problems – The thyroid gland regulates the body’s metabolism. Too little and the body, including the brain, runs slower than normal. This can result in cognitive problems as well as fatigue, weight gain, lethargy, dry hair or skin, a loss of interest in sex, increased sensitivity to cold and muscle cramps.

Menopause – As estrogen levels change, those changes can interfere with other chemicals in the woman’s brain. Hot flashes, usually associated with menopause, as well as multi-tasking can increase the level of a woman’s distractions. This adds to forgetfulness because information is not attended to, and therefore never stored. Depression can also be one of the symptoms that accompanies menopause and therefore play a role in creating memory problems.

Excessive use of alcohol – In addition to damaging the liver and kidneys, heavy drinking can impair brain function. If the brain’s frontal lobe, which handles higher intellectual functions including memory, is involved, memory loss can occur. Long-term excessive drinking can cause a form of alcohol-induced dementia.

Combining alcohol with certain drugs can also be toxic to the brain. As we age our body’s ability to metabolize alcohol is reduced, and alcohol’s impact on the brain can be significant.

Head injuries – The brain, even though the skull protects it, can be quite vulnerable to injury.

A simple blow to the head, a concussion, whether caused by a fall or an object hitting the head, can immediately cause mental confusion or loss of memory. Cognitive loss from Alzheimer’s disease tends to develop at a much slower rate, over years.

Normal aging – Lapses in memory are normal and do not always signify something is wrong. Our brains actually start to decline as we age, as early as age 30.

Our inability to recall a name or specific memory is often due to a combination of our brain’s database overload and a slowing or the brain’s inability to retrieve information as quickly as it once did.

Dementias, such as Alzheimer’s, are not a normal part of aging. And the number one cause for Alzheimer’s is aging.

In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the likelihood of developing it doubles every five years after age 65, and about one in two people over 85 have it.The best way to determine if your memory loss concerns are due to physical or neurological causes is to see a neurologist. Proper testing and diagnosis helps determine the cause of memory loss and the most appropriate treatment.

Ron Kauffman is a geriatric care manager and certified senior advisor. He is the author of “Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease,” available at, where you can also listen to his weekly Podcasts. He can be reached at 561-818-0039 or by email at