Memory loss does not always signal Alzheimers

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You forgot where you put the keys. You left your wallet in the supermarket. Uncle Shlomo's name suddenly slips your mind. Then you realize that you forgot to pick up your coat from the dry cleaner. This gets worrisome. Have you just been too busy to keep track of everything?

One of the biggest obstacles to memory is stress, said Marilyn Williams, a geriatric clinical nurse specialist at the Kaiser Medical Center in San Francisco.

Memory loss in seniors, she noted, is also strongly associated with Alzheimer's disease. This condition affects 4 million Americans and is most commonly seen in patients over 65, though some genetically linked cases have shown up in individuals as young as 40. Ten percent of cases are familial, and geneticists are just now learning where it is found on the chromosome.

"You cannot prevent Alzheimer's unless you choose your parents and choose not to get old," said Laura Sands, senior research associate at the UCSF/Mount Zion Institute of Aging, in San Francisco.

Family members are usually the first to recognize Alzheimer's symptoms in a grandmother who cannot balance her checkbook, or a father who forgets where the kitchen is.

While there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer's, there are ways to help patients in the early stages. Social skills can be preserved by keeping the patient in familiar and safe environments.

Also, "visual cues are very helpful," Sands said. Moderately affected patients "can read and understand short sentences and it is helpful to keep calendars and memory notebooks."

Alzheimer's is not a deadly disease; patients usually die from secondary illnesses. "Alzheimer's comes so late in life that usually something else will get you first, like cancer or pneumonia," Sands said.

While the dementia associated with Alzheimer's cannot be prevented, memory loss associated with vitamin B12 deficiency, alcoholism, depression or pneumonia can in fact sometimes be reversed through treatment. And two studies have shown that taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, such as aspirin, in middle age reduces the risk of developing memory loss.

Sands recommends that seniors report all memory-loss symptoms to their doctors.

"Dementia is particularly dangerous in driving situations," she said. "Patients get disoriented and can drive the wrong way down a street, and this is when they need to see a physician for a workup towards a diagnosis."

Diagnosing memory loss is a lengthy process, she said, noting that Alzheimer's is only diagnosed after everything else has been ruled out.