Alzheimer’s Not the Only Source Of Memory Loss

Health Minute

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Alzheimer’s disease is a growing problem in the United States, with someone being diagnosed every 67 seconds, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease can be crippling as it gradually drains your ability to remember.

These statistics may seem scary, but memory loss does not always lead to or involve Alzheimer’s. In some cases memory loss is reversible, a symptom of reversible dementia. That is, dementia that is that can be caused by a variety of conditions, and which resolves when the underlying conditions are successfully treated.

Dementia, a loss of mental skills that affects daily life, can cause problems with memory, language, or how well you think or plan. Dementia develops when parts of the brain that are involved in learning, memory, decision making, and language are affected by one or more diseases.

About 10 percent of dementia cases can be reversed when they are found and treated, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Neurologist Mark Friedman, DO, spends most of his time seeing patients with memory loss. He said his first priority is to rule out any reversible causes of memory loss by collecting a medical and family history and ordering lab work, neuroimaging of the brain and neuropsychological testing.

Dr. Friedman says that causes of reversible dementia include undiagnosed infections, drug interactions, vitamin deficiencies, hormone imbalances, and depression. Brain abnormalities, such as a structural lesion and a condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus, also can cause memory loss.

When it comes to chronic infections, sometimes the causes surprise patients, he adds.

“People may not appear to have an obvious, active infection or have a fever,” Dr. Friedman says. “However, it is possible that the memory loss could be related to a chronic infection that has not yet been diagnosed. For example, HIV can sometimes cause memory loss. However, it would be rare for this to be one of the initial presenting symptoms, but I have actually seen it.”

Often, particularly with the elderly, anxiety and depression can be mistaken for dementia. But many times as these conditions are treated, the patient's memory recovers.

Pernicious anemia – a rare condition caused by low levels of vitamin B12 – also can cause memory loss. 

The first signs of the deficiency in older adults are confusion, apathy, and slowness, according to Harvard Medical School. 

Medications can cause memory loss, especially as you get older. With age, the liver becomes less efficient at processing drugs, which are eliminated more slowly from the body. Similarly, hormone imbalances such as hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism – in which the thyroid creates too much or too little hormone – can also negatively affect memory.

While each of these causes of memory loss can be treated, with the possibility of reversing the memory loss, it can be a slow process. Dr. Friedman says to understand that memory loss can have more than one cause, and that continual care and monitoring by a physician and neurologist is vital to progress.

That said, if you experience for initial signs of memory loss, don’t jump to the conclusion that you have Alzheimer’s or another irreversible type of dementia.

“There is so much play in the media about Alzheimer’s, so when someone has memory issues, they often fear that’s what they have,” Dr. Friedman says. “You don’t hear as much about reversible memory loss, but this is a very real area of medicine, which I often see and evaluate on a regular basis. I hope people will be encouraged to go ahead and get evaluated for their concerns about memory loss because it might be something that can be reversed.”

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.