As people grow older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As a result, you might notice that your loved one doesn’t remember information as well as they once did, and aren’t able to recall it as quickly. They might also occasionally misplace things.

These are usually signs of mild forgetfulness, not a serious memory problem. It’s normal to forget things once in a while at any age, but serious memory problems make it difficult to do everyday things like driving, using the phone, and finding the way home. Here is a guide to the causes of memory loss, how to prevent memory loss in old age, and when to seek help for your loved one.

Causes of memory loss in the elderly

Memory loss in the elderly can be due to a number of things, from something as simple as the ageing process to more complicated health issues, including dementia.

Memory loss and ageing

Typical age-related memory loss, like misplacing glasses or occasionally forgetting someone’s name, doesn’t cause a major disruption in our daily lives. They are generally manageable and don’t affect our ability to work, live independently or maintain a social life.

Reversible causes of memory loss

Many medical conditions can cause memory loss or other dementia-like symptoms, and most of these can be treated by your loved one’s GP. They include memory loss from:

  • Medicines. Certain medicines or combinations of medicines can cause confusion or forgetfulness.
    A minor head injury. A head injury from an accident or fall can cause memory issues.
  • Emotional conditions. Anxiety, stress or depression can cause confusion, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and other symptoms that may disrupt your loved one’s daily activities.
  • Alcohol use disorder. This can seriously impair mental ability, including if its mixed with medicines.
  • Too little vitamin B12 in the body. Vitamin B12 helps maintain healthy red blood cells and nerve cells, and too little can affect memory.
  • Hypothyroidism. An underactive thyroid gland, known as hypothyroidism, can result in forgetfulness and other symptoms related to thinking.
  • Brain diseases. A tumour or infection in the brain can cause memory loss or other dementia-like symptoms.
  • Sleep apnea. If not treated, it can affect memory but can be improved with treatment.

Memory loss and dementia

The word “dementia” is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms. These symptoms include changes in reasoning, memory, language, judgement, and other thinking skills. Dementia usually begins gradually, worsens over time, and affects a person’s abilities in work, relationships and social interactions.

Memory loss that disrupts your loved one’s life is one of the first more recognisable symptoms of dementia. Other early symptoms might include:

  • Asking the same questions often.
  • Forgetting common words when speaking.
  • Becoming more confused about time, places and people.
  • Mixing up words — saying the word “bed” instead of the word “table,” for example.
  • Taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following directions or a recipe.
  • Misplacing items in odd places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer.
  • Getting lost while walking or driving in a known area.
  • Changes in mood or behaviour for no clear reason.
  • Not taking care of themselves — eating poorly, not bathing, or behaving unsafely.

How to help an elderly parent with memory loss

Depending on the cause of memory loss, it may not be possible to prevent it, particularly if it is related to conditions such as dementia. However, there are things we can all do to keep our brains and bodies healthy.

Body health

We can all look after our body health by:

  • Eating a healthy diet. This means eating foods from the five food groups every day. The five food groups are vegetables and legumes (beans), fruit, grains and cereals, lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (beans), tofu, nuts, seeds, and milk, cheese, yoghurt or alternatives. It’s also worth mentioning that as we get older, we often need fewer kilojoules because we are less active than when we were younger. However, we still need a similar amount of nutrients, sometimes more. For example, as we age, our requirement for calcium increases and we need extra servings of low fat milk, yoghurt and cheese.
  • Being a healthy weight. Health professionals will often determine this by calculating your loved one’s body mass index (BMI), which is determined by their height and weight. It is calculated by dividing their weight by the square of their height. You can do this yourself by using the healthdirect BMI calculator.
  • Adopting healthy sleep patterns. Sleep needs change over a person’s lifetime. Children and adolescents need more sleep than adults, however, older adults need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults — seven or more hours of sleep per night.
  • Not smoking.
  • Not drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol.
  • Managing our mental health, including any anxiety or depression.
  • Getting our hearing, eyes and skin checked regularly.
  • Getting regular check-ups with our GP to make sure things like our blood pressure and cholesterol are in the healthy range.
  • Getting regular exercise. Adults aged 65 or older who have no health conditions that limit their mobility and are generally fit should try to do at least thirty minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, preferably all days. Some of the safest and best exercises for seniors include walking fast, doing water aerobics, ballroom and line dancing, riding a bike on level ground or with a few hills, playing tennis, yoga, gardening and lifting weights.

We can all also reduce risk of other other conditions and reduce the risk of developing dementia by looking after our brain health.

Brain health

We can help keep our brains healthy by:

  • Exercising our brains, such as doing cognitive training exercises, including reading, sudoku and crosswords, jigsaw puzzles, arts and crafts, card games, scrabble, word searches and chess.
  • Taking part in social activities, like catching up with friends and family.
  • Joining social groups that involve activities or exercise.
  • Volunteering in the local community, at a school, or at your place of worship.
  • Learning a new skill.
  • Following daily routines.
  • Planning tasks, make to-do lists, and use memory tools like notes and calendars.
  • Putting our keys, phone, glasses and purse or wallet in the same place each day.

How to help an elderly parent with memory loss

If you’re concerned about your loved one’s memory loss, you should seek medical advice, and it’s best to do this as early as possible. This is because if treatment is required, it often works better when it’s started early. It’s also a good idea that you go with them to support them. Questions a healthcare team may ask your loved one include:

  • When did your memory symptoms begin?
  • What medicines do you take and in what doses, including prescriptions, medicines without a prescription and dietary supplements.
  • Have you recently started a new medicine?
  • What tasks do you find hard?
  • What have you done to cope with memory loss?
  • How much alcohol do you drink?
  • Have you recently been in an accident, fallen or injured your head?
  • Have you recently been sick?
  • Do you feel sad, anxious or depressed?
  • Have you recently had a major change, a major loss or a stressful event in your life?

Memory loss test for the elderly

In addition to giving your loved one a physical exam, their healthcare professional might also get them to do a memory test. One of the most common is the Mini-Mental State Examination. This is a set of 11 questions, and is designed to check for cognitive impairment. It checks size areas of mental ability, including:

  • Knowing where they are — the date and place.
  • Attention and concentration.
  • Short-term memory (recall).
  • Language skills.
  • Visual and spatial relationships between objects.
  • The ability to understand and follow instructions.

Their healthcare professionals may also organise blood tests, brain-imaging scans and other tests that can help pinpoint reversible causes of memory loss and dementia-like symptoms. They might also be referred to a specialist in diagnosing dementia or memory conditions, such as a geriatrician, neurologist, psychologist or psychiatrist.

How to cope with memory loss in a loved one

Coming to terms with memory loss and the possible onset of dementia can be difficult. Some people try to hide memory loss, and some aren’t aware of how much they’ve adapted to the changes. Sometimes family members or friends compensate for a person’s loss of memory.

Getting a prompt diagnosis is important, even if it’s challenging. Identifying a reversible cause of memory loss enables you to get the right treatment. An early diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, dementia or a related disorder is beneficial because you and your loved one can:

  • Begin treatments to manage symptoms.
  • Educate yourself and loved ones about the disease.
  • Determine future care preferences.
  • Identify at-home care choices.
  • Identify whether you need to consider moving your loved one into assisted living, including into a nursing home.
  • Settle financial or legal matters.

Their healthcare team can help you find community resources and organisations for information and support, such as Dementia Australia or the National Dementia Helpline (1800 100 500).

For assistance with property matters due to a loved one moving into aged care, contact our friendly team today.