By Wendy Sarubbi | November 20, 2012 5:23 pm

As we enter the holiday season, you may be visiting aging family and friends you usually don’t see. So how do you know if physical changes like memory loss are normal aging or something more serious?

Forgetfulness and aging often go hand-in-hand, and the holiday craze and other stressful circumstances can make matters worse.  “Stressful situations and life-changing events have been linked to mild cognitive impairment,” says Dr. Mariana Dangiolo, assistant professor of internal medicine at the UCF College of Medicine and a geriatric medicine specialist at UCF Health, the college’s physician practice.  “Unfortunately, the fear of conditions like Alzheimer’s disease prevents many people from discussing memory loss with their doctors.” 

Understanding the difference between normal aging and more serious memory conditions is one step in reducing stress.

Dr. Dangiolo says slight memory loss as one ages can be expected, especially in certain conditions. She says approximately 60 percent of women undergoing perimenopause and menopause report difficulty remembering everyday information like names and phone numbers…or why they walked into a room. Other normal age-related memory loss can include sometimes forgetting names, but remembering them later; misplacing things from time to time like glasses and keys; sometimes having trouble finding the right word; and developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when routines are disrupted.

Common early signs of Alzheimer’s are more severe and specific. They can include:

  •  Memory loss, especially when it comes to new information
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems (following a familiar recipe, keeping track of monthly bills, etc.)
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or during leisure activities
  • Confusion about times and places
  • Trouble understanding visual images and special relationships
  • New difficulties when speaking or writing

If you are experiencing symptoms of memory loss, don’t automatically assume the worst. Approximately 15 percent of people will transition from having mild cognitive impairment – changes that are serious enough to be noticed by the patient and other people – to early stage Alzheimer’s disease. However, according to Dr. Dangiolo, numerous drugs also have been shown to produce mild cognitive impairment and may create or aggravate Alzheimer’s-type symptoms.

Most of the drugs that cause mild cognitive impairment include a property called “anti-cholinergic.” These medications are used for relieving intestinal cramps or bladder irritability and are labeled “anti-spasmodic.”  There are 17 additional types of drugs used for many other purposes that also may have anti-cholinergic effects, such as antiemetics, antihistamines, acid blockers, antiparkinsonian drugs, antidepressants, muscle relaxants and antipsychotics.

To accurately diagnosis clinical memory loss, a neuropsychological evaluation is recommended. If you’ve noticed a recent change in your memory, contact your doctor. He or she can evaluate your overall health to determine whether any medical conditions may be affecting your memory.

While there are no “cures” for memory loss, doctors can help manage the symptoms and sometimes even slow the progression. Drugs for the manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease are acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (Tacrine, Rivastigmine, Galantamine and Donepezil), and an NMDA receptor antagonist (memantine). Psychosocial interventions can help with behavior and emotional reactions.

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