Occasional lapses in memory are normal, and can happen if we’ve had a bad night’s sleep, are under stress, or have skipped a meal and have low blood sugar.
But when memory lapses become repeated and chronic, they can be the sign of a developing mental health issue, which needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Symptoms of memory problems
Memory issues can affect our short- or long-term memories. The principal symptom is usually the loss of photographic and/or verbal recall, often in the middle of thoughts or conversations. Several other symptoms are frequently observed in tandem with these lapses, including:Kharrazian, D. (2013). Why Isn’t My Brain Working? Carlsbad, CA: Elephant Press, p. 269.
- Problems absorbing information
- Problems arranging or following plans
- Misplacing objects
- Aphasia (the inability to understand or produce speech)
If your memory issues are consistent and chronic, there’s a possibility that they could indicate Alzheimer’s disease.
This is a neurodegenerative condition that causes memory loss and a decline in cognitive function. It is the most common cause of dementia in the majority of industrialised countries.Hirono, N., Mori, E., Tanimukai, S., Kazui, H., Hashimoto, M., Hanihara, T., and Imamura, T. (1999). ‘Distinctive neurobehavioral features among neurodegenerative dementias’. The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 11(4), 498–503. Available at: http://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/jnp.11.4.498 [accessed 12 June 2016].
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease develop over time, and usually become increasingly severe. They can be divided into rough periods:
In the early stages, the main symptom is memory loss, in particular forgetting recently-acquired information. For example:
- Forgetting recent conversations or events
- Struggling to recall names of places and objects
- Repetitive speech
- Losing a sense of place and time
- Difficulty developing and following plans
- Difficulty working with numbers
As these symptoms appear, the patient will often seem confused, unhappy, and anxious.
In the developed stages, the patient’s memory problems tend to become more severe, and they may struggle to recognise family and friends.
Other symptoms may include:
- Increasing confusion and disorientation
- Increasing problems with speech
- Difficulty performing spatial tasks
- Disturbed sleep
- Obsessive, repetitive, or impulsive behaviour
- Delusions, suspicions, and feelings of paranoia
- Increasingly frequent and severe mood swings
- Vision problems
In these stages, Alzheimer’s disease has been linked with the development of other mental health issues, such as depression.Diniz, B., Butters, M., Albert, S., Dew, M., and Reynolds, C. (2013). ‘Late-life depression and risk of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: systematic review and meta-analysis of community-based cohort studies’. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 202(5), 329–335. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23637108 [accessed 11 March 2016].
In the later stages, the symptoms above become acute and distressing. A number of other symptoms may also develop, such as:
- Difficulty eating and swallowing (dysphagia)
- Difficulty changing position or getting about without assistance
- Urinary or bowel incontinence
- Aphasia (inability to speak or to process others’ speech)
- Significant to total memory loss (both short- and long-term)
- Severe hallucinations and delusions
There is no consensus as to the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, and research thus far has been inconclusive.
But some consistent factors in its appearance have been observed:NHS. (2017). ‘Alzheimer’s disease – causes’. [online] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Alzheimers-disease/Pages/Causes.aspx [accessed 29 Sept. 2017].
- Older people are at greater risk: the likelihood of developing the disease doubles for every five years of age over 65
- Unhealthy lifestyles, such as smoking, chronic stress, drinking, and eating excessively, increase the risk
- Those with a family history of the disease are at a slightly higher risk than those without
Some bio-chemical signs of Alzheimer’s disease have also been observed. The condition seems to be connected to inflammation:Wohleb, E., Godbout, J. (2013). ‘Basic aspects of the immunology of neuroinflammation’. Modern Trends in Pharmacopsychiatry, 28, pp. 1–9.
- The levels of cytokines (chemical markers associated with inflammation) are raised in Alzheimer’s patients; these can be used to predict cognitive decline and the development of dementia
- There are three times the level of lipopolysaccharides (LPS) in Alzheimer’s patients than in healthy controls; while some LPS in the gut is natural, since it’s an important structural component of bacteria, an increase in gut permeability can cause elevated levels of LPS in our blood, and lead to inflammation