Short Term Memory Loss in The Elderly

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Watching an elderly parent or loved one age can be hard. They almost seem to change before your very eyes. Whilst ageing certainly doesn’t mean the loss of all independence and faculties, one area which can be affected is the memory.

We automatically think of Dementia or Alzheimer’s when we consider memory loss, but it’s not always down to this. There are many reasons for short term memory loss to occur, and not all of them are even down to ageing. For the purposes of this article however, let’s explore what can cause short term memory loss in the elderly, the other causes aside from Dementia and Alzheimer’s, and whether anything can be done to slow it down or even stop it altogether.

About The Short Term Memory

Everyone has a long term memory and a short term memory, no matter what their age. The short term memory, as the name would suggest, is limited, but it’s actually far more limited than you might realise. The short term memory holds information for no more than 30 seconds, and in rare occasions up to about 60 seconds. During this time, the brain will figure out whether that information needs to be retained, i.e. stored in the long term memory bank, or whether it can be forgotten. It is during these cases that you hear something, and then a few minutes later, you can’t remember it at all. It was in your short term memory and has been discarded.

Memory loss overall is not an issue which is for the elderly alone. It is thought that a huge 40% of adults who are 65 or over will have some kind of memory issue, with short term memory loss being the most common.

The key factor is to be able to tell the difference between short term memory loss for a regular reason, and short term memory loss which is leading towards dementia and Alzheimer’s. Both conditions are irreversible, but they can be slowed down and managed, if caught early enough.

What Are The Common Causes of Short Term Memory Loss?

There are many different reasons why someone might develop a short term memory problem, either as an ongoing issue or just in the short term.

The following are potential reasons for short term memory loss, particularly in the elderly.

  • A specific disease of the brain – this is the dementia or Alzheimer’s side of things. Whilst it isn’t always the case, these two conditions are extremely prevalent in today’s society, and are classed as degenerative brain diseases. Other potential issues in this category can be as a result of a stroke, e.g. a part of the brain was damaged as a result of the stroke and the lasting effect is an issue with the short term memory. Huntington’s Disease or Parkinson’s Disease are two other common conditions which slowly affect the brain to the point where memory is damaged, and in some cases, especially in Parkinson’s, this can eventually be severe. Epilepsy can affect memory, especially if seizures are common, as well as multiple sclerosis (MS). These are all conditions which will require medical attention to manage the symptoms, however in the case of dementia and Alzheimer’s, the effects will eventually be completely degenerative.
  • An infection of the brain – Whilst rare, certain infections which affect the brain can also cause memory function to be less than what it should be. This is certainly not something which only affects the elderly, and can affect anyone at any time in their life. When the problem is contracted in the twilight years however, the effects are likely to be more pronounced. Such infections include meningitis, encephalitis, syphilis, Lyme Disease, and HIV.
  • A specific brain injury – Any injury to the brain can affect memory, such as a car accident with a bump to the head, etc. A regular concussion can cause memory issues, as well as brain surgery or a deficiency such as B1 or B12 vitamins.
  • Psychiatric or Mental Health Problems – Stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can all affect the short term memory. In this case, the problem can usually be reversed once the condition improves.
  • Certain Medications – Some medications can affect the short term memory, such as drugs for anxiety, statins for cholesterol, blood pressure medications, and some pain medications which contain narcotics. Anti depressants and sleeping pills can also have this same effect.

Dementia And Alzheimer’s Disease

Of course, whenever the term ‘memory loss’ of any kind is mentioned in relation to someone who is elderly, we automatically think about dementia or Alzheimer’s. These two conditions are certainly on the rise over the last few years, and whilst they are not treatable in terms of a cure, they are manageable, if they are caught quickly enough.

Dementia is a loss of certain brain functions, including memory, reasoning, or judgement. In order for the diagnosis to be made, two functions have to be affected, and for the most part this usually comes down to memory as one of the most common. Alzheimer’s Disease is actually responsible for a huge amount of dementia cases, as high as 80%. It is very easy to confuse the two, but there are subtle differences.

Whilst dementia is a series of brain degenerative issues which make life difficult and steadily worsen over time, Alzheimer’s is actually a disease and in the end it will almost destroy the brain. Alzheimer’s cannot be reversed, it can only be potentially slowed down. Dementia in most cases is the same, however in some cases (if caught early) it can be reversed to a degree which makes it much less affective of a person’s life.

Both dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease are age-related conditions and whilst there is no set age at which the risk factors increase, the older someone is, the more likely they are to be affected by one or the other at some point in their lives. It can be very difficult for family members to see their loved one affected by both of these conditions, and for the elderly person themselves, the confusion can be extremely upsetting. There are many management options available for both dementia and Alzheimer’s but it is important to understand the conditions and the eventual progression, in order to be able to work with these management options successfully.

Short Term Memory Loss Treatment in The Elderly

Short term memory loss can be treated, but it needs to be detected early. Understanding the signs is vital. The main things to be on the lookout for include:

  • Sudden confusion, or confusion which increases over time
  • Not being able to remember things you have just heard, e.g. a name, etc
  • Having no recollection of what you did a few minutes ago, or a day ago

It can be very distressing to suddenly not be able to remember something which you feel you should be able to recollect. It is important to keep this in mind when you are around your loved one, and not become frustrated or angry with them for not being able to recall details. Of course, it can also be upsetting, but letting this show will only make your loved one feel worse, and cause them to worry also.

Seeking the help of a doctor is the first step. The reason for this is because certain medications can help slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease, if this is proven to the reason for the short term memory loss. It’s important to reach out for help quite soon after you notice these signs and symptoms, because the sooner treatment begins, the slower the progression will be. These medications will ultimately slow down the memory effect, but it is important to realise that it will not stop the progression of the disease in the end.

In terms of self-help and treating/managing dementia, there are many other things you can do, and you can do these as a family, to help your loved one feel supported and less lonely in the situation. Remember, your loved one is probably going to be as concerned about the memory loss as you are, and they will automatically jump to the conclusion that they are developing severe dementia or Alzheimer’s. This will cause them to worry, and in the elderly, worry is never a good thing. By keeping everything light-hearted and involving family in activities, you can alleviate the pressure and concern, and treat the issue accordingly.

A few self-help routes include:

  • Staying Active – There is a lot of evidence to suggest that staying as active as possible can help to keep the brain and memory just as active too. Consider the brain and the memory to be like a muscle which you need to flex in order to keep strong. Just like your bicep muscles at the gym, you need to exercise them regularly, to keep them strong and healthy. The brain and memory is exactly the same. This active route doesn’t have to be anything strenuous, but going out for a walk in nature on a sunny day is a great way to get the blood flowing and also to give the brain a work out. You can point things out in the scenery, talk about what you’re seeing, and this will boost brain and cognitive function, keeping it strong and healthy.
  • Socialising Often – If your loved one is prone to staying indoors or sticking within their tried and tested routine, try to get them out a little if possible. Suggest community groups, such as coffee mornings or craft afternoons a a few ideas. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that those who are regularly sociable and get out and about with friends and new people have a stronger and healthier brain, and therefore memory function.
  • Play Brain Games – At home, try some brain training games to keep the memory bank sharp and functioning well. Looking through old photographs and asking about what was happening at the time, who that person is, what the weather was like, etc, these are great ways to give the memory a work out and boost recollection. If your loved one can’t remember something, don’t push it too much and don’t become frustrated, simply move on to the next photograph in a natural manner.
  • Look at Their Diet – Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables (as fresh as possible) is a must in terms of overall health and wellbeing, but also for brain function because of the nutrients and vitamins that are being delivered. Also look towards omega 3 fatty acids, which are contained mostly within oily fish types. These are ideal for brain function.

These are all ways that you can help your loved one to keep their memory sharp, and it avoids the need for strong medications which might have possible side effects. If your doctor suggests these however, always listen to their advice first and foremost.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that remaining as active as possible into old age, and keeping the brain working with games, list making, memory tasks etc, can go a long way to helping to prevent and slow down degenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Whilst we can’t completely rule out the chances of these affecting the life of an elderly person, we can do a lot to reduce the chances and therefore reduce the seriousness of the condition if it does occur.

It’s also the case that elderly people can be a little ‘stuck in their ways’ occasionally. This is normal! This means they might not want to go to community groups they’ve never been to before, and they might not want to go out walking with you. Be patient and be encouraging, but not bossy. Remember, your elderly loved one deserves the dignity and respect they have enjoyed throughout their lives, and simply because they are experiencing a short term memory problem due to the ageing process, this doesn’t make them any less deserving of the same treatment.