Am I Losing My Mind?
Memory loss is a condition that people experience as a result of many complex inter-related dynamics: medical conditions, mental health issues, environmental factors, and other contributors. What is “normal” aging, and when do you need to be concerned? In my experience, ageism can sometimes get in the way of a correct diagnosis. Busy physicians may not take the time to look beyond the obvious to investigate the true underlying causes. If you are experiencing memory loss, it is important to have your symptoms diagnosed accurately and early, to understand what’s really going on and get the best treatment possible for your specific condition.
What is “dementia?”
Dementia is a disorder that meets particular criteria. There are about a dozen types of dementia; Alzheimer’s Disease is one of them. Other possible causes for symptoms of memory loss must be ruled out before an accurate diagnosis of dementia can be made.
What factors can contribute to memory loss (vs. dementia)?
- Side effects of medications, or combinations of medications. Sometimes, patients are prescribed multiple medications by different physicians that can have detrimental effects when combined.
- Insufficient nutrition and/or hydration can decrease cognitive function.
- Thyroid disorders, diabetes, or other chronic disease states might cause mental confusion or memory impairment.
- Loss and grief issues. A devastating loss in life can impair mental functioning. The person may not sleep or eat well, and may be focused exclusively on their grief.
- Chemical dependency issues. We are increasingly seeing chemical dependency issues in older adults—dependency on substances such as alcohol, pain medications, and anti-anxiety medications.
- Untreated chronic pain can become debilitating and can cause cognitive challenges.
- Vision and hearing impairments can also be mistaken for dementia; we find that physicians sometimes miss or disregard these as possible culprits.
- Mild cognitive impairment. This is a common disorder that affects recall and short-term memory. This is not dementia and does not necessarily progress into dementia.
- Mental illness or depression. It is important to differentiate between mental illness and dementia—conditions which often co-exist. For example, we often find that dementia and depression can go hand in hand.
When should I be concerned?
Sometimes, you can live with memory loss that doesn’t impair your functioning. However, if you experience memory loss that interferes with your daily living, you should consult your physician. Signs to watch out for include:
- Withdrawing from usual activities and/or social interactions
- Getting lost or disorientation
- Lack of motivation
- Taking medications improperly
- Trouble paying bills and attending to other daily tasks
- Declining grooming or housekeeping
- Not eating properly
- Motor vehicle accidents
It’s important to note that most dementia tends to come on slowly, not suddenly. However, trauma of any kind can catapult a mild dementia into a rapid decline. Anyone who experiences significant memory decline as a result of severe shock or trauma may wish to have a complete evaluation.
What can be done?
If you’re concerned about symptoms related to memory loss, don’t hesitate to meet with your doctor. Time is a factor and it is important to understand what’s going on early in the game.
- The first step is a comprehensive medical evaluation. Your primary care physician should perform a thorough history and physical exam to understand the physical dynamics contributing to your condition. If deemed appropriate, the physician will make a referral to the behavioral health team.
- The second step is a mental health exam by behavioral health. Our job is to dig a bit deeper, beyond the medical evaluation, to understand the psychosocial dynamics at play and perform a comprehensive mental health assessment.
- The third step is an individual treatment plan. Armed with the information collected in the history and physical exam, along with the mental health assessment, we create a treatment plan to address your particular needs, conditions, and concerns.