Is it Memory Loss or Something More?

Pierre Tariot, MD, is a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute. Banner Alzheimer's Institute can be reached at (602) 839-6900.

Question: How do I know when my memory loss is something more, such as Alzheimer's and dementia?

Answer: You may be aware of a change in your own memory or thinking. More likely it will be a family member who is the first to express concern; sometimes it will be an astute physician. In all instances, further evaluation is in order, addressing the various ways that the brain can fail.

In terms of intellectual changes, are the memory lapses becoming more prominent and frequent? Have there been times when you did not know how to find your way in a familiar area? Has there been increased difficulty finding the right words? Have you had a harder time making decisions, solving problems or understanding new information?

Next, and very important for evaluating for possible dementia, have these memory and thinking changes affected your daily functioning? For instance, handling legal or financial affairs, paying bills, driving, performing household chores, and the like?

Finally, dementia sometimes causes changes in emotions and personality. Have you become noticeably more sad, blue or tearful; more irritable or grouchy; uncharacteristically suspicious? Any of these changes could signal an emerging dementia and should definitely trigger a medical evaluation. The evaluation should consist of a review of symptoms, an assessment of your medications and other health concerns, a physical and neurological exam, tests of memory and thinking, blood tests and a brain scan.

Your primary care doctor may be comfortable conducting this evaluation or a specialist may be consulted. There are many different causes of dementia—this is not a specific diagnosis. Some forms are fully reversible; almost all can be treated. The message here is that it is imperative to have a proper evaluation so you know how to proceed.