Not all memory loss is the same

Remember that time a woman in the post office ran over to you, gave you a big hug, and asked about your children? You had no idea who she was, yet it was pretty clear that she knew you.

OK, maybe you don’t remember. But don’t jump to conclusions. Not all memory loss is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory problems and other symptoms of cognitive decline can range from the natural forgetfulness of normal aging to full blown dementia and be caused by a number of afflictions, not limited to Alzheimer’s disease, some of which are treatable and some not.

As healthy people age, they may miss an appointment here or there or forget someone’s name or face, but the memory lapse will not be significant enough to affect safety or normal activities. They may have some word-finding difficulty or the occasional misplaced item, but given enough time, they will figure it out.

Those with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) may have trouble with familiar tasks, but not significant enough to affect their ability to eat, get dressed, or maintain proper hygiene. They can find it difficult to follow conversations, books, and movies, and be challenged by making decisions and solving problems. Loved ones may also notice mood swings, poor judgment, or withdrawal from social activities. Approximately 20 percent of people with MCI will return to normal cognitive function within a few years, though some will remain at this stage and others will develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

Vitamin and hormone deficiencies, depression, medication side-effects, infections, and brain tumors can cause symptoms similar to dementia. If you are experiencing symptoms that you find troubling or that impact your daily life, see a doctor right away so that a treatable condition is handled correctly. If symptoms indicate MCI, Alzheimer’s, or other dementia-causing disease, early diagnosis will mean early access to support, treatments, and medication.

Scientists are actively studying MCI, especially since we know that those with Alzheimer’s disease or similar diseases may not show symptoms for many years. Greater Boston has two Alzheimer’s Research Centers, one is the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center, with which Standish Village is affiliated, and the other is at Harvard Medical School. You can learn more about research participation and their current studies on their websites.

If you or a loved one are experiencing the symptoms of MCI or dementia and would like to connect with other families and caregivers, our virtual Caregiver Support Group meets monthly via Zoom. For more information, contact Director of Compass Programming Ericka Foley at efoley@standishvillage.com or call 617-298-5656. You can also find resources about MCI at seniorlivingresidences.com/MCI.

Julie Williamson is the executive director at Standish Village in Lower Mills.