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Alzheimer's? Probably Not!

Wednesday, June 01, 2016


Alzheimer’s is the current lay health writer’s subject du jour, which is both good and bad. The good pro aging news is increased public and government awareness about the need for additional Alzheimer's research funding.

The bad for many people of a certain age is that any lapse of memory can trigger the thought that we might be developing Alzheimer’s.  We walk into the kitchen only to realize we have no idea why we’re there. We can't find our keys. Such lapses are usually attributed to an overload of information, but from time to time, other treatable health issues can hinder our ability to remember.

Here are some of the most common causes of memory lapses:

High blood pressure: If you tend to be “forgetful”, you may want to have your blood pressure tested. In research conducted at the University of Alabama in 2015, it was found that people who have higher blood pressure tend to suffer from memory lapses, as well as a decrease in cognitive skills, when compared to people with normal blood pressure.

Over time, high blood pressure damages the inner walls of the arteries, causing them to form scar tissue, which hardens the arteries. Harder arteries allow less blood to travel through them, reducing the amount needed for the brain to function properly, and may lead to memory problems. The good news is that proper nutrition, regular physical exercise and weight loss can help reduce the risk of such arterial hardening.

Hypothyroidism:  If you’re tired, gaining weight, feeling depressed and your memory is on the fritz, you may be suffering from hypothyroidism.

Hypothyroidism often occurs slowly and gradually, lowering the levels of the hormone thyroxine (T4), which has a critical role in our body’s energy production. Low T4 causes a slower metabolism and slower cognitive functions, causing lapses in memory.

Common causes of hypothyroidism can be autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s, where the body attacks itself.  Alternatively, over-use of antibiotics may also induce hypothyroidism. Talk to your physician about this possibility.

Vitamin B12 Deficiency:  Similarly to iron, B12 aids in the creation of red blood cells, reduces lethargy and the risk of anemia, and improves vital memory processes. Studies have found that Vitamin B12 deficiency may result in erratic memory.

The research found that B12 works as a protective layer for myelin – the substance that coats your nerves. When there isn’t enough B12 in your system, the layer is not thick enough and gets damaged.  This damage slows down nerve impulses, which can lead to memory lapses.

B12 deficiency can be caused by old age – as we age, our stomach secretes less acid, making it harder for our bodies to absorb nutrients from food. Another cause can be unhealthy diet choices or anemia. B12 is most common in fish, meat, and dairy, so consider nutritional supplements and consult your doctor about the best source of B12 for you.

Steroid medication for Arthritis and Asthma:  Corticosteroids are steroids the body produces, and can be taken as treatment of asthma and arthritis.  Intake of high doses for long periods may lead to memory problems.

Despite being a rare occurrence, corticosteroids can actually kill brain cells and cause cerebral atrophy, in the hippocampus in particular.  Changing the dosage can help, but your physician should be consulted with regards to other possible side effects.

Menopause: A common theory that makes the connection between forgetfulness and menopause in women has been corroborated. Recent research confirms that as estrogen levels dwindle, memory lapses tend to occur. Estrogen protects neurotransmitters, and without it, they become less efficient. Such cases can be treated, and if this is a concern you should consult your physician.

Depression: Depression is associated with low levels of chemicals in the brain such as serotonin or norepinephrine. These chemicals can affect memory-related processes in the brain. Antidepressants and/or psychological treatment can help with this type of memory problems.

Transient or reversible causes:

Long Flights:  Long flights can leave us exhausted and weary. These symptoms are usually caused by inconsistent sleep patterns, as well as jet lag. Research has shown that the feeling of drowsiness, memory lapses and the difficulty in processing information can extend for quite some time after long flights, even after the feelings of jet lag have passed. When we sleep, our hippocampus processes our memories, so not enough sleep can cause memory lapses.

Chemotherapy:  An unpleasant side effect of chemotherapy is memory loss, often referred to as chemo-brain by patients. Chemotherapy can affect the way brain cells function, as shown in a 2009 Stanford University study that showed how women who undergo chemotherapy for breast cancer also suffered memory lapses when compared with those who did not engage in chemotherapy.

This is usually a reversible situation, and memory functions return to normal once chemo is concluded, but in some cases the improvement takes years. Taking aspirin, which increases the blood flow to the brain, can be a good way to prevent or treat “chemo brain”, but you should first consult with your physician.

Anesthesia: When undergoing major operations, anesthesia is often the only way a patient can go through the procedure without suffering major trauma. The downside is possible memory loss and reduced cognitive functions in the days following the operation. The University of Florida found that about 40% of patients who were over 60, suffered from memory loss after an operation, and 12.7% suffered serious cognitive problems in the following 3 months.

Alcohol: The more alcohol you consume, the less capable your brain is of storing short term memories. Alcohol affects the hippocampus, reducing its functions, including the formation of new memories, which is why we sometimes have short-term memory loss after we drink. Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to the loss of the ability to form short-term memories.

Spencer P. Thornton, MD, with the Biosyntrx staff