Memory & dementia

Last updated 21 January 2016 — Last reviewed 10 March 2014

Misplaced keys, name-blanks, forgotten groceries – we are all familiar with memory glitches. How do we explain these moments? There are many causes of poor memory such as stress, ageing, illness, menopause or something more serious, like the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. There are many strategies to help with memory including staying mentally and physically active, using organisational tools like a calendar or special notebook, and mnemonics – word plays and rhymes.

memory lapsesMemory involves three phases:

  • Encoding (filing information into your memory)
  • Storing
  • Retrieving

Forgetting can be the result of a glitch at any one of these steps.

What affects your memory health?

Anything that affects physical health will affect thinking ability:

  • Illness such as the flu
  • Chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure
  • Vitamin B12 and folic acid deficiencies
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Lack of mental activity
  • Stress
  • Grief
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Social isolation

Menopause & memory

Perimenopause (when periods start to become irregular, and menopause symptoms begin) is known to be a time of memory lapses, poor concentration and ‘foggy’ thinking. Sixty per cent of women report memory complaints with menopause.

Some studies have linked a chemical imbalance (a drop in oestrogen) with memory and verbal function changes at this stage of a woman’s life. However, there are many other potentially stressful issues happening at the same time that need to be considered. Coping with teenagers, ageing parents with health problems, work, hot flushes, disturbed sleep, lack of libido and the effects of that on your relationship. These are all part of the context of your life stage and can certainly affect your memory.

A pilot study conducted by Jean Hailes endocrinologist Dr Sonia Davidson[1, found that treatment of postmenopausal women with testosterone for six months improved memory and learning ability.  This was a small study, but it may be that testosterone helped with menopause symptoms which in turn improved quality of life and memory or there may be a direct effect on memory. More understanding on this method is needed.

Memory changes associated with healthy ageing

The ability to pay attention and focus on more than one thing at a time decreases with age. "With increasing age there are changes in the brain's blood supply and mass, as well as the richness of interconnections between nerve cells," senior lecturer of psychology at Adelaide University Lynn Ward explains. "These changes affect the speed of our mental operations. It takes more effort to learn new things and longer time to process and recall information."

Sensory losses, such as reduced hearing or sight, also impact memory.

Dementia

A change in your memory does not mean you have dementia. As the brain naturally ages it becomes more difficult to learn and retain new information, but most complex skills are not lost. Dementia is not a normal part of ageing.

It is defined as an acquired global impairment of intellect, memory and personality without impairment of consciousness. Dementia is regarded as a syndrome and not a specific diagnosis in itself. Dementia is a collection of diseases affecting the brain. It is often seen just as a loss of memory but it can affect thinking, behaviour and ability to perform tasks. This can interfere with the normal social and working life.

It is now the third leading cause of death in Australia, and as the population ages we will see more people with dementia.

Dementia can happen to anybody, but is more common after the age of 65. Just because a parent has had dementia, it does not mean that you will too.

Types of dementia

There are a number of different types of dementia including:

Alzheimer’s disease

  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia
  • It is a progressive, degenerative illness that attacks the brain
  • It is a syndrome of unknown causes, usually presenting insidiously (gradual with few or no symptoms) and developing slowly over a period of years
  • The most common early symptoms are short term memory loss, word finding difficulty and personality changes

Vascular dementia

  • Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia
  • It is a type of dementia that is associated with problems with the flow of blood to the brain
  • Many cases of vascular dementia are due to silent ‘mini strokes’ which are caused by high blood pressure, heart disease or smoking

Dementia with Lewy bodies

  • This is not a common form of dementia
  • It can come on quite quickly and change rapidly and is caused by the degeneration and death of nerve cells in the brain
  • People with this type of dementia tend to see things (visual hallucinations), experience stiffness or shakiness (Parkinsonism)

Other neurological diseases can also have dementia associated with them. These include:

  • Parkinson’s Disease- a progressive neurological disease
  • Huntington’s Chorea- an inherited disease
  • FrontoTemporal Lobar degeneration
  • Alcohol related dementia (Korsakoff’s Syndrome)
  • AIDS related dementia
  • Brain tumours

It is important to be assessed by a doctor or geriatrician for a proper diagnosis, as there are other conditions which can appear like dementia but get better with the right treatment. These may include depression, medication side effects, infection or vitamin/hormone deficiencies.

What are the signs of dementia?

The early signs of dementia are often subtle and vague and can sometimes be confused for other conditions. The most obvious clue to dementia is increasingly frequent memory difficulties particularly with things you used to be good at. Some common symptoms are:

  • progressive and frequent memory loss
  • confusion
  • lack of interest and withdrawal
  • change in personality, such as becoming flat or aggressive
  • loss of ability to perform everyday tasks

The following memory problems are not 'normal' and need to be investigated:

  • A memory problem that affects daily living such as frequently:
    • forgetting where you are going while driving
    • losing common objects
    • putting common objects in odd places
  • Progressively worsening memory
  • Forgetting how to do familiar tasks
  • Trouble learning new things
  • Repeating phrases or stories within the same conversation
  • Substituting forgotten words with inappropriate words
  • Trouble making choices or handling money
  • Inability to keep track of what happens each day, such as missing appointments
  • Mood and personality changes

If more than one of the above applies to you or a family member, seek the advice of your doctor.

Risk factors for dementia

The following may increase the chance of developing dementia:

  • Heart disease
  • Strokes
  • Midlife hypertension
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Genetic disease
  • Head injury

Strategies for memory

The best strategy to improve your memory and prevent memory loss is to do a range of things. Recent studies have shown activities that involve two or more components of physical, social and mental activity are better for your memory than doing one.

Stay physically active Good for the heart = good for the brain.
Stay mentally active Read books and newspapers, do puzzles, games and quizzes.
Stay socially active or volunteer
  • Socialise with friends and family
  • If you are experiencing memory difficulties, socialising with just one person is better than group settings

Maintain good nutrition

In particular, eat 2-3 serves of fruit and 5-7 serves of vegetables daily, reduce saturated fats, increase omega 3 intake and eat foods rich in vitamin E, B12 and folate.
Start a new hobby This can strengthen your thinking but if you are already having memory difficulties, avoid doing dramatically new hobbies as this may make you feel frustrated.
Adopt a positive approach
  • Don't be judgmental or hard on yourself
  • Minimise stress
  • Relax and take your time when you need to remember

Use memory strategies

Strategies to organise or categorise information can help, like using:

  • diaries
  • calandars
  • whiteboards
  • lists and reminder notes

But also try using:

  • mnemonics: word plays and rhymes
    • e.g. Imogen is the one with the big imagination
  • acronyms: a word formed from initial letters
    • e.g. for a shopping list of bread, oranges, yoghurt and sugar: just remember BOYS
  • imagery: use pictures to link objects with names
    • e.g. James jumps up and down a lot
  • association: linking to something you know
    • e.g. Isabel is part of the local tennis club

Food for your brain - video

Jean Hailes naturopath and herbalist Sandra Villella talks about some foods that are great for the brain and cognitive function.

Where to get help and further information

First see your doctor to check if there are medical causes for your sense of memory loss. You may be referred to a geriatrician, neurologist or memory clinic for a formal assessment.

References

  1. Davison et al. Testosterone improves verbal learning and memory in postmenopausal women: Results from a pilot study. Maturitas. 2011 Nov;70(3):307-11. doi: 10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.08.006. Epub 2011 Sep 17.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at March 2014.

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