Employee & Community Health

Signs of memory impairment? Speak up

11/14/2019 by Dr. Ericka Tung

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Everyone forgets where they've put their keys, the name of an acquaintance they run into at the grocery store, where they've parked or who stars in the movie about the washed up pro golfer. But when these memory lapses start interfering with daily functioning, it's time to pay attention to, not ignore them. 

Some signs of more serious memory impairment seen by you, family members or your loved ones include: 

  • Taking more effort to learn something new
  • Forgetting not just details, but complete events
  • Having trouble finding the right words or mixing up words
  • Struggling with organization
  • Having difficulty following a recipe or directions that were previously easy
  • Asking the same question again and again
  • Looking at a complex background and not seeing an object or individual
  • Getting lost in a familiar place

If you start noticing symptoms of memory impairment, write them down to make it easier to see a trend. Then set up an appointment with your primary care provider. And take a family member or friend with you. It's important that someone be with you to fill in additional details, as well as hear what the provider has to say. 

While we currently don't have a cure for dementia, it can be managed to ensure you or your loved ones know all the facts about the condition and live the best possible quality of life. Initial assessment and testing can be done right in your provider's office. Many conditions can also mimic dementia. Sometimes the symptoms aren't caused by memory impairment but by other things, such as a medication side effect, thyroid deficiency or vitamin deficiency. 

If the initial diagnosis suggests dementia, it may be followed by more in-depth tests and possibly a CT scan or MRI. There are many types of dementia and giving a name to it can help your provider individualize the treatment. Now is the time to start proactive care and forming a partnership with your provider. Memory impairment brings new challenges, but also new solutions. 

Your provider will talk with you about the role of medications and ways to stay active and foster your mental capabilities. They also will look at the best way to manage any other health conditions. For instance, they may simplify diabetes monitoring or the schedule for taking medications. 

Is there a way to prevent or avoid dementia? While we can't control our genes, there are powerful risk factors we can control by paying attention to our lifestyle. Researchers are finding these factors affect whether or not we develop dementia:

  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure
  • Uncontrolled high blood sugar (diabetes) 
  • Untreated depression
  • Social isolation
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Low education level
  • Mid-life, untreated hearing loss

That last one needs a bit of explanation. Hearing loss causes some degree of sensory deprivation, which may lead to cognitive impairment. When you have untreated hearing loss, it takes more effort to hear, which stresses your brain and uses up brain reserves. That leaves less reserve for remembering things. 

Memory impairment doesn't define the individual, it's a chronic condition. And we manage those by capitalizing on what the individual is still doing really well and filling in where there are deficits. It's nothing to be embarrassed about and your health care provider is there to help keep you as safe and independent as possible. 

Dr. Ericka Tung is an internist and geriatrician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM). she practices across the community in clinic, skilled-nursing facilities and home-care based settings. She also directs the Mayo Clinic Geriatric Medicine Fellowship training program.