Understanding memory decline

Mental Health and Wellness
Understanding memory decline

As our population ages, the need to understand the aging process by clinicians, patients and caregivers is more important than ever.

One of the most frequent concerns among the aging is decline in memory. It is only natural for us to experience declines in memory as we age, but knowing the age-appropriate amount of decline to be expected compared with a decline that is indicative of neurodegenerative disease or psychiatric distress can be difficult for patients and clinicians alike. Being confident to the origin of memory decline is important as treatment options and strategies to increase quality of life are vastly different. Sometimes memory difficulties are rooted in the physical brain, other times memory problems are rooted in our mood and overall wellbeing. Regardless of the root, it is still possible to improve your quality of life.  

When we think of memory decline we quickly think of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Despite being commonly discussed in the media, it can be difficult for clinicians to distinguish between dementia and other contributors to memory decline such as depression or anxiety. Complicating the issue is that frequently individuals with dementia also show symptoms of depression secondary to the disease. Treatment can vary from medication or psychotherapy for the patient, and frequently should include additional education to caregivers who help plan daily activities for the patient.

Some frequently noted concerns that may warrant evaluation and treatment of older individuals include:

  • Signs of rapid forgetting. This is the hallmark and one earliest symptom related to Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals may repeat themselves through statements, stories or asking the same question several times without knowledge of prior vocalization. It can also be present in depression.
  • Social withdrawal. Socially, this is also a hallmark of several forms of dementia, but also of depression and anxiety. It can be difficult for individuals to explain why they feel the need to withdrawal, regardless it is a source for concern by loved ones and clinicians.
  • Concerns of cognitive decline. Individuals with Alzheimer’s may appear depressed but may deny symptoms of depression, whereas older individuals with depression are more likely to discuss their cognitive decline. Still, attention is warranted as being aware of deficits is not always an indicator of their absence.

  • Cognitive stability. Some caregivers or loved ones may not show concern because of the surprising stability of other areas of life like doing crossword puzzles, operating electronics or the preservation of a complicated skill. Dementias can vary and often some aspects are preserved - and this can unfortunately delay some individuals from seeking evaluation or treatment.

There are only two ways to tell if you or your loved one is experiencing abnormal memory decline and why - time or an evaluation by a trained clinician. By utilizing clinical expertise on the matter, individuals can properly prepare and have the tools to maximize their golden years.