THE NON-ALZHEIMER'S CAUSES OF MEMORY LOSS
Alzheimer’s DiseaseAlzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. And it’s worth noting that dementia isn’t itself a disease but rather an overarching way of describing memory loss due to age and various types of diseases. Between 60 and 80 percent of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s, and it’s believed the total number of seniors living with Alzheimer’s in the United States is over 5.5 million. Alzheimer’s disease causes a progressive degeneration of memory, cognitive, and motor functions, and it usually starts to develop around age 60. The more you age, the more at risk you are to develop the disease. “In Alzheimer’s disease, the brain cells degenerate and die, causing a steady decline in memory and mental function,” the Mayo Clinic said. Some symptoms of the disease include:
- Declining memory: Not just the loss of short-term memory. Alzheimer’s can all but destroy all parts of the brain associated with remembering where you are in the present.
- Change in behavior: Because Alzheimer’s is progressive, it can cause the diagnosed person to become depressed and withdrawn from society.
- Wandering: Someone with Alzheimer’s can often be found wandering outside of their home for no specific reason or with no recollection of how they got there.
- Impaired reasoning: Aside from memory, Alzheimer’s can affect the way you think and your ability to handle abstract thoughts.
- Motor dysfunctions: People with Alzheimer’s have been found to lose sense of touch along with other motor impairments like being able to walk or use their hands.
Other Forms of Memory LossAlzheimer’s disease is not the only cause of memory loss in seniors. There are other diseases and outside forces that contribute to it. Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prolonged alcohol and drug abuse can have severely damaging effects on the brain. “The brain is highly vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects of alcohol, and cognitive disorders may result from brain damage caused by chronic alcohol abuse,” a study linking alcohol use and cognition noted. It concluded that after looking at “longitudinal and brain imaging studies in the elderly … excessive alcohol consumption may increase the risk of cognitive dysfunction and dementia.” Excessive alcohol use over a lifetime is also a primary cause for Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome (WKS): “a short–lived and severe condition called Wernicke’s encephalopathy and a long–lasting and debilitating condition known as Korsakoff’s psychosis,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The syndrome can cause elderly people to forget things both in the short- and long-term. Patients with WKS can often discuss an event they experienced in their lives, but may forget having that particular discussion shortly thereafter. Drug abuse has similar effects on the brain. Consistent drug use can lead to a multitude of injuries to the brain, like killing brain cells and seizures. It can also cause addiction, which brings with it myriad issues while changing how the brain functions. Some drugs that can hinder the brain’s long-term cognitive ability include:
- The loss of a spouse or friends
- Disassociation with the community/isolation
- Pain from physical issues
- Need for dependency when not accustomed to it
Other Forms of DementiaWhile Alzheimer’s may be the most common form of dementia, it is not the only form of dementia that contributes to memory loss and cognitive abilities. Parkinson’s disease Parkinson’s disease is one of the more common forms of dementia (after Alzheimer’s). The disease affects about one million people every year. It primarily leads to the loss of motor functions, as the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation pointed out, and they include:
- Tremors: Unintentional movements of muscles
- Unstable posture: Coordination and posture are impaired
- Slowness of movement: The symptom is called “bradykinesia” and causes someone with Parkinson’s to take much longer to complete simple physical tasks
- Stiffness: Affects the fluidity of muscles in the body
Medication Side EffectsElders in America is one of the most heavily medicated groups of people in the world. Despite people aged 65 years or older only making up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they account for more than one-third of outpatient spending on prescription medications, according to DrugAbuse.gov. In 2013 alone, the Center for Disease Control found that 2.8 billion drugs were “ordered or provided” by health professionals, and based on the aforementioned report, that means about 920 million of those drugs were intended for seniors. One site noted that “the average elderly patient is taking more than five prescription medications” and “the average nursing home patient is taking seven medications” at any given time. This points out exactly how often seniors are using drugs, many of which have memory loss as a side effect. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) pointed out a bevy of general prescription drugs that can potentially cause memory loss. Some of those include medications for:
- Reducing cholesterol: While reducing cholesterol has been proven to help the heart and body, the drugs prescribed to do that (they’re called statins) can also deplete the brain of cholesterol. The brain uses cholesterol as the “formation of connections between nerve cells — the links underlying memory and learning.” Some of these medications include Pravachol, Lipator, and Lescol.
- Pain: Painkillers such as Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin affect pain receptors in the brain, causing pain levels to alleviate and the emotional response to pain to qualm. These types of drugs are called opiates and give the brain a sense of pleasure due to the alleviated pain, which causes the brain to produce less of its own dopamine—the chemical that controls pleasure. If there is an overload of dopamine due to use of these drugs, there can be instances of mild amnesia and even short-term blacking out. The longer drugs like this are used, the more it can affect short-term memory.
- Anxiety: Anti-anxiety medications (benzodiazepines) have been linked to memory loss because they weaken the brain’s ability to move short-term memories into long-term memory.
- Depression: This is a common issue with elders, especially those who who become isolated as they age and encounter more medical issues. The medication used to treat it, though, often affects memory as well. “TCAs (Tricyclic antidepressants) are thought to cause memory problems by blocking the action of serotonin and norepinephrine — two of the brain’s key chemical messengers,” the AARP said.
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Seniors living with Alzheimer’s in the U.S.
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