Memory can be a tricky matter and can play games with us at the worst times. Have you ever blanked on the name of the person standing right in front of you? Have you had trouble recalling a crucial fact in the story you were telling? These minor memory mishaps can happen to anyone at any time, including your residents. When speaking with them, you may notice they frequently struggle with recalling a name, place, or the right word. You may wonder if you are witnessing a momentary memory lapse or something more. It’s important to know when to be concerned about memory loss, as it can be an early warning sign of a more serious issue.

How Our Memory Works

Memory is what allows us to recall the “who, what, where, when and how” of our lives, both short-term and long-term. The process of memory is broken down into three stages.

  1. Encoding – how we take in information
  2. Consolidation – how our brain processes information and stores it in certain areas the brain
  3. Retrieval – how we recall the information stored in our brain

When someone suffers from memory problems, the issues can affect any or all of the stages of memory. The affected person may not be able to encode new information or the brain may process or store information incorrectly. As a result, information cannot be recalled when it is needed.

Casual Forgetfulness vs. A Serious Concern

When we witness forgetfulness in seniors, we may immediately fear it is the onset of dementia. Many of the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia, are focused on a person’s memory.chart showing signs of when to be concerned about memory loss

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Problems with recalling words in speaking/writing
  • Misplacing things and having trouble retracing steps

However, many of the signs above can also be associated with the normal aging process. It may be hard to determine if the memory issue is part of the normal aging process or if it is a form of dementia. The helpful comparisons below may illustrate more clearly when to be concerned about memory loss in your residents.

Forgetfulness that comes with normal aging includes:

  • Forgetting parts of an entire experience
  • Forgetting where you parked the car
  • Forgetting events from the distant past
  • Forgetting a person’s name, but remembering it later

Signs of more serious memory conditions include:

  • Forgetting an experience
  • Forgetting how to drive a car or read a clock
  • Forgetting recent events
  • Forgetting ever having known a particular person
  • Confusion or decreasing alertness

What Can Be Causing Elderly Memory Loss?

While Alzheimer’s disease is the cause of memory loss in many seniors and affects an estimated 5.2 million individuals over the age of 65, it’s not the only reason that someone may struggle with memory. If you have concerns about memory loss in a resident, consider whether it could be caused by one of these conditions.

Sleep apnea – When we do not get enough quality, deep sleep – due to disorders like sleep apnea – it can affect our spatial navigational memory. This type of memory helps us remember directions or where we place items.

Silent strokes – During a silent stroke there is a reduced flow of blood to the brain and damage to the brain. However, with a silent stroke, the area of damage is smaller and may affect areas of the brain we use less often. Though not as noticeable, the loss of oxygen and nutrients traveling to the brain can still result in memory problems.

Medications – Sleeping pills, antihistamines, anti-anxiety/anti-depression medication, cholesterol-lowering drugs, and hypertension medication are examples of medications that can affect activity in the brain to the point of causing memory loss.

Stress, anxiety, or depression – When we are in a stressful, anxious, or depressed state, our brain is not as engaged as it normally would be. This makes encoding and processing information more difficult.

Nutritional deficiency – A lack of B12, a vitamin which promotes normal nerve function, can result in difficulty with thinking and reasoning, as well as memory loss.

Infection – Often times confusion or decreased alertness are signs of a urinary tract or respiratory infection or peptic ulcer.

Metabolic disease – Conditions including thyroid gland diseases, diabetes, liver or kidney failure, and lung conditions like COPD, can cause abnormal chemical processes in a person’s body, which can lead to loss of brain function.

It’s important to recognize that, if caught early enough, memory loss stemming from these causes can be treated and reversed.

If you’re interested in developing an Alzheimer’s and dementia care program for your assisted living community, SeniorLivingU’s Developing a Memory Care Program product offers best practices for quality care and customer satisfaction.