Middle-aged Caucasian daughter kisses forehead of her older mother with memory loss.

When a Little Memory Loss Becomes a Big Problem

In the time it will take to read this article, as many as five Americans will develop Alzheimer’s disease. It could be your spouse, parent, co-worker or neighbor. Someday, it could even be you.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of misplacing a set of keys or forgetting an appointment, but that’s normal from time to time. As we age, those annoying memory lapses may start to occur a bit more often, so when is there cause for real concern?

Diana Kerwin, M.D., director of Texas Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders, chief of geriatrics and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas, is leading the charge against cognitive decline and dementia through patient care and research.

“People need to know there are normal, age-related changes in the brain,” she explains. “After age 40 the brain’s processing speed begins to slow. Just like a computer processor, the brain slows down due to age and the amount of information it stores over the years.”

Kerwin said problems arise when the person is not aware they are starting to forget important things such as family events, appointments and taking medications.

If you are concerned about your loved one’s recent memory loss, she suggests accompanying them to the doctor, since they are probably unaware of it.

“Some families may mistake this lack of discussion as denial, but the person doesn’t realize there is a problem because they do not know they are forgetting,” Kerwin said.

Alzheimer’s disease is becoming a significant problem for the aging American population. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased by 71 percent in the last decade, making it the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 5.4 million Americans are currently living with the disease, with someone developing Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds.

On a more local level, 25,000 people in Dallas County have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, and as many as 350,000 Texans have the disease.

Dr. Kerwin acknowledged how difficult conversations about memory loss can be, especially with aging parents, so she has several recommendations for how to proceed:

  • Try to go to a doctor appointment with them to bring up the memory changes and ask the doctor to check for some common, easily correctable issues that can cause memory loss, such as thyroid function and vitamin levels like B12, folic acid and vitamin D.
  • Be sure that any issues for them involving blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes are well controlled.
  • Evaluate their medications to ensure there aren’t over-the-counter sleeping medications that may cause memory difficulty.
  • Also, review their medications to be sure they are being taken as prescribed. Sometimes the person with memory loss does not realize they are not taking their medications, so check with the pharmacy to see if the refills confirm the medication is being taken regularly.
  • Ask the doctor to do a memory screening in the office, or send your parent to a specialist for a memory evaluation.
  • If you feel the person’s memory loss may jeopardize his or her own safety or the safety of others, it is important to address this as soon as possible. Part of treating memory loss involves making adjustments to prevent other injuries or illnesses.

Age-related memory changes are unfortunately a fact of life, but there are ways to determine if those changes are normal or something more worrisome. The Alzheimer’s Association provides a list of 10 early warning signs and symptoms that could signify Alzheimer’s, as well as an explanation of the three general stages of the disease.

While there is no silver bullet to prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are working toward a cure. The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging awards millions of dollars in grant money annually and is requesting $1.4 billion to fund research for the 2018 fiscal year.

Dr. Kerwin and her colleagues at the Texas Alzheimer’s Memory Disorder program and Texas Health Resources are doing their part by participating in both research projects and clinical trials.

“We have several studies as part of large national clinical trials that are looking at the effectiveness and safety of new therapies for Alzheimer’s, neurologic disorders and dementias,” she said. “Our program collaborates with the University of Texas Southwestern through the Institute for Endocrine and Exercise Metabolism and UTSW’s Department of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics, where I am on the faculty. We are planning and collaborating for several studies over the next several years.”

Despite the lack of clear evidence of the disease’s causes, Dr. Kerwin said there are ways to potentially keep Alzheimer’s at bay or slow its progression.

“Several studies have come out over the past few years indicating that diet, exercise and controlling vascular risk factors (such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes) are very important in preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and delaying the progression of memory loss to more significant levels,” she said. “Also, keeping a healthy diet by looking into foods that are brain healthy such as the MIND diet and exercising daily for at least 30 minutes are two things I recommend to anyone worried about keeping their brain healthy and to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.”

If you’re concerned about a loved one’s recent memory changes or to learn more about the neuroscience program at a hospital near you, visit TexasHealth.org/neurosciences or call 1-877-THR-WELL.

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