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Confusion and Memory Loss in the Elderly: It's Not Always Alzheimer's

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

If elderly individuals or their loved ones are asked about their biggest fear related to aging, it is often the fear of memory loss and confusion that is in the forefront.

I've worked with the elderly for many years and I've cared for my aging parents as well. I've seen the devastation of dementia, Alzheimer's, and other conditions, injuries, and diseases that can rob us of the basic memories and thought processes that make us who we are and allow us to live independently. When we lose our memories and our ability to make sense of the world, we lose who we are and the connections that we have with others as well.

When we realize that repeated reminders are needed to remember appointments and medications or we find that the same stories are being told repeatedly, the anxiety starts. We immediately begin dreading the day when our loved one no longer recognizes us or when they can no longer share their stories or reminisce about our shared experiences.  Certainly the signs of incurable dementia or Alzheimer's are there.

I am not a physician, but I do have my personal experiences with these issues and I believe it is important to face the problem but resist the urge to assume the memory loss or confusion that has become evident is due to an untreatable condition.  The facts show that there are many, many potential causes and identifying the cause could help in either getting appropriate treatment to slow the process or to remedy it altogether.

There are of course a variety of neurological problems that could be the root cause. Strokes and tumors are just two possibilities. Rehabilitation may help a stroke patient and surgery, in many instances, can be a solution for patients with a tumor.  Even diabetes, which is increasingly common can have a link to confusion and memory loss. 

For the elderly, memory loss and confusion can also be related to dietary/nutritional deficiencies, dehydration, depression, and medications.  My father went through a period of psychosis and hallucinations thanks to a variety of medications he was on at the time. None of the medications were new to him when these problems became evident, but over time they reached levels that became problematic.  Once these were cleared of his system and readjusted, he went back to his normal, independent self. 

Disturbed sleep can also create cognitive problems. My mother began having hallucinations, some general confusion, and fatigue. A sleep study revealed that she never entered REM sleep (the deeper stages of sleep) and therefore was not resting. Once this issue was successfully treated, her hallucinations and confusion stopped. 

Any issue that reduces blood flow or the transport of oxygen through the body can certainly influence memory and cognition. COPD, asthma, cardiac problems and so forth can contribute to this.  I've also seen hospitalized elderly patients who develop urinary tract infection which resulted in increased confusion. The list of possible causative factors is long but it's important to be aware of the possibilities. Proper treatment of these underlying conditions may result in improved memory and cognition.

A physician can thoroughly consider medications, test for nutritional deficiencies, order a sleep study or neuropsychological evaluation as needed. They can search for the conditions or illnesses that may underly the problem. It would be a mistake for families to automatically assume the memory loss and confusion they begin to witness in an elderly family member is Alzheimer's Disease without requesting further exploration.


 


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