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Published on May 27, 2020

When Memory Loss Isn't Dementia

doctor with senior patient

It’s hard not to think of Alzheimer’s disease when you suffer from memory glitches.

After all, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are constantly in the headlines – but not all memory loss is dementia.

Dr. Anslem Opitoke has information about some of the common causes of memory loss other than dementia, and how a specialist can best identify and treat those causes.

Why is it important to distinguish dementia from memory loss due to aging or other forms of memory loss?

Dr. Anslem Opitoke:  The primary difference between what we call “acceptable” memory loss and dementia is that dementia will interfere with daily function and independence.

Dementia can affect learning and memory, but also language, attention, motor and social cognitive functions.

Most are surprised to learn that the majority of individuals diagnosed with dementia do not complain of memory loss.

Whereas acceptable memory loss due to aging is associated with a decline in learning new information like forgetting where you parked.

It is mild change that does not progress over time.

There are also many conditions, often misdiagnosed as dementia, that are reversible with the appropriate treatment.

What are some of these other conditions that may cause memory loss?

Dr. Opitoke:  There can be many reasons for why an individual suffers from memory loss.

For example, some medications or a Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause memory loss.

Depression can be a culprit, as well as a malfunctioning thyroid, both of which can affect overall brain function.

Conditions such as delirium, potentially caused by an adverse medication interaction or infection, or something known as Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, where fluid builds up in the brain, are also associated with significant cognitive impairment.

How is the cause of memory loss ultimately identified and diagnosed?

Dr. Opitoke:  If at any point you’re concerned about memory issues affecting yourself or a loved one, I’d recommend seeing a specialist that is trained to distinguish between all the different causes of memory loss.

He/she will complete a comprehensive memory assessment to diagnose the cause of memory loss, and offer treatment or support to cope with memory changes.

At EvergreenHealth, our memory assessments start with memory testing done by a social worker.

A physician will then complete a detailed medical history, physical examination, medication review and order any labs of imaging that may help confirm a diagnosis.

Basic labs will indicate any vitamin deficiencies or thyroid issues. While imaging of the brain will evaluate the level of hippocampal function; fluid and any brain injuries suffered from mini-strokes.

Once we have all of the results from the memory and medical tests, we will meet to review the findings and to develop a care of plan.

And what treatment options are available?

Dr. Opitoke:  For those with a treatable or reversible form of memory loss, we will seek to address and treat the underlying cause.

If dementia is diagnosed, we will work closely with you and your family to develop a plan tailored for you that may include:

  • Medication – there are currently four drugs approved by the FDA
  • Diet and exercise
  • Stress reduction
Anslem Opitoke Meet the Expert

Anslem Opitoke, MD

Dr. Anslem Opitoke specializes in chronic care management, including the care of patients with memory disorders. His practice at EvergreenHealth Geriatric Care supports older individuals with complex medical needs.

Read Dr. Anslem Opitoke's full profile

Learn more about the Memory Clinic at EvergreenHealth Geriatric Care