Brain fog … Can’t clear the cobwebs … I know I know this … Wait, wait, don’t tell me … Really, it’s on the tip of my tongue.
What did I do yesterday? (Hmmm. Good question).
If this sounds like your state of mind (or lack thereof), you may have dementia.
Hold on. Don’t panic.
Dementia, defined as problems with memory or thinking and changes in personality or behavior, can be reversible.
In fact, more than 50 conditions can cause or mimic the symptoms of dementia.
“Short-term memory loss, like difficulty remembering recent events, is often the most pronounced symptom of both reversible and non-reversible dementias,” said Maegan Hatfield-Eldred, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group Neurology.
Common causes of reversible dementia include depression, vitamin B12 deficiency, drug or alcohol abuse and underactive thyroid.
“We associate the word ‘dementia’ with permanence, something that’s going to get worse or is incurable,” Dr. Hatfield said. “But with these conditions, symptoms subside, or are reversed, when the underlying problem is treated.”
Many medications can also cause dementia-like symptoms.
As we age, the liver and kidneys don’t work as efficiently so drugs tend to accumulate in the body, become toxic and cause problems. Elderly people in poor health and those taking several different medications are especially vulnerable.
Stressed-out caregivers beware
Another increasingly common cause for scary dementia symptoms is stress. And those overwhelmed by caring for others are particularly at risk.
“So-called ‘caregiver dementia’—cognitive and memory issues brought on by the stress of caring for a loved one—is a very real phenomenon,” Dr. Hatfield said.
Fortunately, caregiver dementia is reversible. Symptoms go away when the stress and depression are resolved, which can be particularly reassuring for those immersed in primary caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s.
“These folks start to notice similar symptoms in themselves and think, ‘I have this, too,’” Dr. Hatfield said. “But it’s because they see and experience (the dementia) day in and day out. And that’s extremely stressful. It’s tough managing their own lives and caring for someone else, too.”
What’s typically at work here is the stress hormone, cortisol, she said. Chronic stress can affect the ways in which our brains function in the present, and may seriously alter our brain health in the years to come.
Chronic anxiety and depression also affect brain function and behavior.
“It’s so important to get help, to be proactive in overcoming these feelings and address any issues,” Dr. Hatfield said. “Don’t let things go or build up. Stress reduction is something to take very seriously.”
Younger people are not immune either, she said. Pronounced and dramatic memory issues due to extreme stress can happen to people in their 20s and 30s.
Is it dementia or something else?
Some reversible dementias are easier to diagnose than irreversible dementias because they can be identified by medical tests. Others are more difficult to pin down.
To tell for certain, Dr. Hatfield advises seeing a neuropsychologist for testing. She suggests using age to help determine when, or if, testing is necessary.
“If you’re under age 50, we tend to be less concerned about a non-reversible dementia like Alzheimer’s disease because they’re incredibly uncommon in younger adults,” she said. “Instead, we look at stress, depression or other medical conditions first.”
But if you’re over age 65 and notice memory problems it’s a good idea to get it checked out with a full neuropsychological evaluation.
“Everyone has challenges with memory and thinking at one time or another,” Dr. Hatfield said. “Neuropsychological assessment measures how your brain is functioning compared to others your same age. It’s also very good at differentiating cognitive problems caused by stress or depression from problems caused by a non-reversible dementia.”
If your test scores fall outside the normal range, she said, doctors have key information to help identify a cause.
I think your article should have mentioned FTD, Picks and MCI as potential causes of memory problems. Alzheimers gets a lot of attention, as it should, but FTD or Picks are deadly and have no drugs to slow or reverse the progressive loss of cognitive function. Multi domain cognitive impairment can lead to dementia.
My daughter blames me for her lack of memory. I do this all the time. I do suffer from depression. I have an underactive thyroid. And over the years have taken care of my mother til she passed away, along with my brother. Now I have my inlaws living with me. Although they’re mobile and reasonably healthy, no household is big enough for two families. I’m going to bring up the vitamin B12 subject with my physician, along with this article, to see if he thinks if I should consult your clinic. Heck, I failed an interview and I knew the answers! Like it said in the article: it was on the tip of my tongue. I could just see them, but could not get the answers out. I was so mad at myself.
Thanks, Jan, for being a Health Beat reader. We’re glad our article helped.
Getting evaluated is key. I wrote an article outlining 10 specific causes of reversible dementia symptoms. I hope it’s helpful for you!
Hi, is “reversible dementia” any less scary than “dementia” or “Altsheimers”?
This article is not too much help.
Hi Patricia, Reversible dementia is definitely less scary as it can be treated and often reversed once the root cause is found. That’s great news! 🙂
My wife was just tested for Alzheimer’s and it was a four hour test. She did not do very good. The doctor scared me to death. My wife told me about test and I don’t think I could have passed it. None of her doctors seem to worried about the results. Don’t know who to believe.
Best wishes for you and your wife. If you found this article of interest, you may find many others in our Aging Well and Brain, Spine & Nerves categories helpful as well.
MCI, or Mild Cognitive Impairment, can be a sign of early dementia or show you have a better chance of having dementia as you get older. A 4 to 5 hour neurological exam may be able to measure the health of your brain, but beware of a ‘negative’ results that may be interpreted as more then “your just getting older”. As it says above. Stay active and exercise your brain.
Thank you for your comments, Tom! 🙂
I think this should include post concussion syndrome. TBI and MTBI. These affect memory also but hopefully with treatment get better.