Memory Loss: My Parent is Forgetful – Is it Serious?

By Pamela D. Wilson, CSA, MS, BS/BA, CG

Caregivers wonder about signs that indicate a loved one may have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Is simple forgetfulness an indicator? Is the type of forgetfulness a factor? How complicated is memory loss to diagnose? How might I notice forgetfulness in a loved one? Isn’t becoming forgetful as we age normal?

There is a term called “cognitive control” that means the ability to coordinate, organize behavior, plan, and reason which are considered higher order brain processes that support or impair day-to-day function. Simple mention of forgetting where one placed a set of keys is also relevant however day-to-day functioning is more relevant in diagnosing memory loss. It’s this change in day to day functioning that occurs over time and that many family members fail to notice until something more significant occurs that cannot be ignored.

Disorganization and an inability to plan becomes more relevant with an individual who previously possessed or excelled with these skills. When this individual over time is disorganized and forgets or misses appointments this represents a change. Has your parent or a loved one missed an appointment? Are there stacks of mail sitting on the kitchen table unopened? Does your parent tell you repeatedly that they are going to take a specific action yet the action never occurs? Sometimes these small changes are not noticed until they become more significant.

Is your loved one able to evaluate information between two alternatives and easily make a decision? Or when questioned, does mom or dad say, “I’ll decide later or I just can’t make up my mind.” These delay tactics that may seem normal may indicate cognitive decline. Responses that are vague rather than specific may indicate cognitive decline. No one wants to admit that he or she can’t remember or make a reasonable decision.

We either know and can recall information or we can’t. Sometimes we may experience a delay in accessing information; this is normal. When we can’t remember at all, have difficulty planning or completing daily activities, or we continually repeat information this is indicative of memory loss.

It is this type of memory dysfunction that most caregivers miss or do not relate to memory loss. When caregivers think of memory loss they traditionally tell me that mom or dad can remember everything that happened years’ ago. Well of course they can! Long term memory is not the issue.

Memory loss specifically relates to short term memory, immediate recall, and the ability of the brain to transfer immediate information into our long-term memory bank. This is where the brain short circuits. Imagine glue (the technical term you might hear in the Alzheimer’s literature are plaques and tangles) plugging up the electrical cord in your brain that transfers information from A (short term memory) to B (long term memory). The information attempts to make the transfer but due to the sticky glue in the brain the information is trapped in transmission and never reaches B.

This inability of the brain to transfer information is the reason that a family member is unable to remember a conversation that occurred a minute ago, or five minutes ago. It’s also the reason that your loved one keeps asking the same question or repeating the same story.

What to do? Seek a specialist like a neurologist or a neuropsychologist to complete a thorough cognitive assessment to determine if what you are seeing is normal aging or something more serious.

©2017 Pamela D. Wilson. All Rights Reserved.

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