My aged parents keep forgetting things. Should I worry?

How you can understand if the memory loss is due to aging or dementia.

Our body undergoes several changes as we age, and our brain is no different. Given this fact, some amount of cognitive difficulty and forgetfulness often arises as a person ages. However, there’s a difference between normal age-related memory loss and memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Memory loss due to the process of aging doesn’t prevent an individual from living a full and productive life. For example, an elderly person may forget where they put their glasses or keys  or may forget the name of a person they haven’t seen in a while. Often such changes in memory don’t disrupt daily functioning which includes their ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.

When memory loss is a sign of dementia 

Not all memory problems are a part of aging. Usually when an individual shows signs of dementia, other cognitive functions apart from memory are affected - learning, orientation, language, comprehension, planning, problem-solving and judgement. You may want to seek help if your parent is:

  • frequently and increasingly forgetting things such as names, things and events
  • having difficulty recalling recent events and incidents eg., forgetting what they had for breakfast that day.
  • not able to recall familiar names or events completely. Eg.,. forgetting the name of a grandchild or remembering going to a relative's house but can't remember which relative they visited
  • unable to recall names/places/events even after being provided with cues 
  • forgetting common words when speaking or greeting
  • showing sudden changes in behavior and mood or exhibits increasing anxiety
  • having difficulty in performing their daily activities due to forgetting 
  • misplacing items in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer or fridge
  • having difficulty finding the way or gets lost while walking or driving in a familiar place
  • becoming less able to navigate a place or follow directions
  • having difficulty making decisions  

The existence of two or more of these signs could be an indication of a memory loss due to dementia. 

What to do if the signs indicate dementia

is a progressive and degenerative brain disease affecting cognition especially memory. Early detection and prevention are effective in reducing the risk and delaying the onset of dementia by a few years. If you notice that the signs of forgetfulness in your aged parents indicate dementia, then consult a psychiatrist or neurologist to evaluate the situation.

Forgetfulness can also be caused due to diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, depression, anxiety, vitamin B deficiency and hypothyroidism.  Research evidence shows that these conditions can also potentially increase the risk for dementia. 

The risk for severe memory loss can either be prevented or reduced by:

  • Keeping a check on potential risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, hypothyroidism and deficiency of vitamin B.
  • Modifying the lifestyle including reducing stress and avoiding smoking and/or reducing the intake of alcohol.
  • Engaging in activities that can preserve or even improve brain functioning and cognition. For eg. solving word or number puzzles, playing board games like chess, enhancing a hobby etc.
  • Increasing physical activity helps in increasing blood circulation to and from the brain. It also helps in keeping diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol under control
  • Maintaining a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables and a diet rich in Vitamin B

Based on the inputs from Dr P T Sivakumar, professor, geriatric psychiatric unit, NIMHANS