Why is my mother losing her memory?

Dear Doctor,

My mum is becoming overly forgetful of late. She seems to forget even things you are sure she won’t. She is 72 years old and her memory has always been okay as she most of time reminds me and my siblings of things. We are worried about her. What should we do? Noella

Dear Noella,

It is indeed a cause for anxiety when our loved ones, particularly elders, become forgetful. This generates anxiety in their minds and also makes them more vulnerable to getting lost outside and or being harmed in some way. One may become forgetful due to mental stress or sleep deprivation. But in this case, after adequate rest memory is restored to normal. With the increase in ageing population the world over, problem of memory loss is also increasingly being seen.

The most common cause for forgetfulness with advancing age is degenerative changes in the brain. With ageing, the brain tissue may shrink due to multiple reasons, thus affecting memory. Uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes, old stroke, head injury, brain infection, smoking, and alcohol use, are some factors which hasten this change and aggravate it.

Dementia is yet another cause of forgetfulness in senior citizens. It is a group of symptoms caused by changes in brain function. The common features are like, asking the same question repeatedly in spite of being answered, forgetting the name of familiar persons, places, getting lost in known roads, and etcetera.

In advanced cases, one may neglect personal hygiene and nutrition. It is a slow process and progresses slowly, unless one suffers from a stroke, high fever, head injury, among other situations which causes further damage to the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is also a form of dementia, which has a genetic component as well. Recurrent low blood sugar levels can provoke and aggravate dementia.

Nutritional deficiency, particularly that of vitamins B1 and B12, affects intellect of a person and can cause dementia. It can be a side effect of some medicines used to treat high blood pressure, depression, drugs used to treat seizures, lipid lowering drugs and anti-Parkinson drugs. Underactive thyroid gland also leads to memory loss. 

A detailed history of forgetfulness, its presence whether intermittent or chronic, its progress, presence of other co-morbid conditions help to pinpoint or exclude a cause for memory loss. Imaging techniques like C.T scan, MRI of the brain can help to identify a potentially treatable cause.

Mostly chronic and progressive memory loss is irreversible. However, it can be prevented from happening by keeping the mind active by  learning a new language or skill, doing some reading and writing daily, doing crossword puzzles, and etcetera. These can prevent brain atrophy. Regeneration of new brain cells is also possible by keeping the brain stimulated. A healthy life style is also helpful in this.

Staying socially active, interacting with people live instead of social media is also helpful in preventing memory loss with ageing. Drugs are available that claim to help in memory loss. But they invariably produce side effects and are helpful for a short while only.

Dr. Rachna   Pande is a specialist in internal medicine.