Common Memory Concerns and Disorders in Seniors:
The mildest form of memory impairment, also known as age-associated memory impairment, is diagnosed by self-perception of memory loss, as well as a standardised memory test score that shows a decline in objective memory performance in comparison with younger adults. It is estimated that about 40 percent of adults over the age of 65 have age-associated memory impairment, with only 1 percent of them progressing to dementia each year.
Despite the fact that a decreased sense of memory is a natural and common occurrence in the ageing process, concerns should be taken seriously, as a decline in memory could also indicate the existence of another health issue that impacts memory or the early stages of dementia.
Mild-cognitive impairment (MCI) is considered a condition in which memory and thinking problems are worse in a person than would be expected for their age. However, unlike dementia, these problems may not be severe enough to get in the way of the person’s day-to-day life.
Research estimates that people with MCI have a three to five times increased risk of developing dementia than others their age, although this often depends on the underlying cause. About 15 percent of people with a more severe diagnosis of MCI progress to dementia each year. However, a substantial proportion of people with MCI have remained stable or even improved in tests conducted regularly over a number of years.
Dementia is not a natural part of the ageing process—Rather, it is a progressive disease (meaning that the symptoms get worse over time) that damages nerve cells in the brain. As more nerve cells are damaged, the brain becomes less capable of functioning properly. This results in the symptoms found in dementia, including problems with memory, thinking, problem-solving, or language and changes in mood, emotions, behaviour, and perception.
Dementia can be caused by various diseases that affect the brain in different ways, thus resulting in different types of dementia such as Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementia (FTD), and more.
- memory loss
- difficulty concentrating
- finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks, such as getting confused over the correct change when shopping
- struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word
- being confused about time and place
- mood changes
- memory problems – people may not recognise close family and friends, or remember where they live or where they are
- communication problems – some people may eventually lose the ability to speak altogether. Using non-verbal means of communication, such as facial expressions, touch and gestures, can help
- mobility problems – many people become less able to move about unaided. Some may eventually become unable to walk and require a wheelchair or be confined to bed
- behavioural problems – a significant number of people will develop what are known as "behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia". These may include increased agitation, depressive symptoms, anxiety, wandering, aggression, or sometimes hallucinations
- bladder incontinence is common in the later stages of dementia, and some people will also experience bowel incontinence
- appetite and weight loss problems are both common in advanced dementia. Many people have trouble eating or swallowing, and this can lead to choking, chest infections, and other problems.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, is a progressive disease that affects up to 1 in 10 Australians over the age of 65 and 1 in 3 Australians over the age of 85. Everyone’s brain is made up of billions of nerve cells that connect to each other. However, with Alzheimer’s disease, connections between these cells are lost due to proteins in the brain building up and forming abnormal structures called “plaques” and “tangles.” This eventually causes the nerve cells to die, leading to lost brain tissue.
Beyond this, there are also chemicals in the brain that help send messages between different brain cells. However, with Alzheimer’s, people have fewer of these chemical messengers and the signals are not passed on as effectively. The combination of loss of brain tissue and the lack of chemical messengers in the brain are what cause the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Because it is a progressive disease, as more brain tissue is lost, the symptoms only worsen over time.
In the early stages of the disease, memory lapses are the main symptom.
- forget about recent conversations or events
- misplace items
- forget the names of places and objects
- have trouble thinking of the right word
- ask questions repetitively
- show poor judgement or find it harder to make decisions
- become less flexible and more hesitant to try new things
There are also often signs of mood changes, such as increasing anxiety or agitation, or periods of confusion.
As the disease progresses, memory problems will get worse, possibly causing the person with Alzheimer’s to find it increasingly difficult to remember the names of people they know. They may also struggle to recognise their family and friends.
- increasing confusion and disorientation – for example, getting lost, or wandering and not knowing what time of day it is
- obsessive, repetitive or impulsive behaviour
- delusions (believing things that are untrue) or feeling paranoid and suspicious about carers or family members
- problems with speech or language (aphasia)
- disturbed sleep
- changes in mood, such as frequent mood swings, depression and feeling increasingly anxious, frustrated or agitated
- difficulty performing spatial tasks, such as judging distances
- seeing or hearing things that other people do not (hallucinations)
At this stage, someone with Alzheimer's disease usually needs support to help them with everyday living. For example, they may need help eating, washing, getting dressed, and using the toilet.
In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, symptoms become increasingly severe and may be distressing for the person, as well as their friends, family, and caregivers.
While hallucinations and delusions can appear throughout the course of the disease, they may become worse as the condition progresses. Sometimes this can cause people with Alzheimer's to be violent, demanding, and suspicious of those around them.
- difficulty eating and swallowing (dysphagia)
- difficulty changing position or moving around without assistance
- weight loss – sometimes severe
- unintentional passing of urine (urinary incontinence) or stools (bowel incontinence)
- gradual loss of speech
- significant problems with short- and long-term memory
At this point in the disease, people with Alzheimer’s may need full-time care and assistance with anything from personal care to moving around.
How to Improve the Memory and Manage Symptoms—Try These Helpful Memory Improvement Tips
1. Get A Good Night’s Sleep
Never underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. Sleeping is the body’s time to repair itself, as well as process short-term memories that are converted into long-term memories during deep stages of the sleep cycle. This means that getting sufficient shut-eye is essential to optimising cognitive functioning and being able to retain new information. If you struggle to get enough good quality sleep, click here to read tips on how you can sleep more soundly as a senior.
2. Stay Socially Active
Staying socially active is not only good for your mental health, but it is also has been proven to help preserve memory. In a research experiment, US scientists asked people in their 50s and 60s to do memory tests every other year between 1998 and 2004. Their results found that the decline in recall abilities of their most sociable subjects was half that of the least well-connected.
Furthermore, research suggests that having close relationships with friends and family, as well as participating in meaningful social activities, may slow down cognitive decline and help people better maintain their thinking skills in older age. Regardless of whether you stay socially active by regularly keeping up with your friends and family, joining a club that involves a personal interest, volunteering in the community, or getting a pet, social interaction is a necessity for your overall wellbeing.
3. Remain Mentally Active—Puzzles, Music, Mental Exercises, Memory Games...
Not only should you be physically and social active for better health and memory, but you should also maintain your mind by being mentally active. From fun puzzles to memory exercises, there are plenty of ways to stimulate your mind every day and improve your cognitive functioning. However, it is important to remember to take breaks in between these exercises to allow your mind to rest and process the information. Most importantly, try to practise patience with yourself and avoid getting frustrated, as this can only make it harder to retain new information and skills, ultimately hindering your progress. It may take some time to see the results you’re hoping for, but keep at it—You can do it. Click here to see some fun exercises you can try to start stimulating your brain.
4. Keep Focused and Organised
Anyone’s memory can suffer in a chaotic, disorganised environment. This is why it is crucial for anyone, but especially people with memory disorders, to stay organised in their lives and homes. Staying organised significantly helps with memory, as it limits distractions and keeps your thoughts, plans, and possessions in order. Some things that you can do to stay organised include:
- Placing everyday items such as keys and wallets consistently in the same spot (preferably in a place that you walk by frequently)
- Writing down important things that you want to remember
- Using organisers to keep track of your stuff such as pill boxes, binders, and folders
- Keeping to-do lists and crossing off the items that you complete
- Placing calendars and clocks around your home as a constant reminder of what time it is
- Limiting distractions that can make you lose focus on the task at hand
- Maintaining a schedule
Take Care of Your Overall Health: Regularly Visit the Doctor, Manage Any Chronic Health Conditions, Eat Healthy, and Exercise
There are many factors that can affect our memory, whether it be a diagnosed memory disorder, a symptom from another chronic health condition, side effects from medications, a lack of sleep, or consumption of alcohol. This is why it is important that you take care of every aspect of your health in order to optimise your memory.
You can do this by visiting the doctor regularly, managing any chronic health conditions, getting therapy, and taking care of your body through healthy eating, regular exercise, and good quality sleep. If you are concerned about a health condition or a possible side effect of a medication you’re taking, discuss these concerns with your doctor and look for possible solutions. Remember that when you take care of your body, you are also taking care of your mind and memory.