Alzheimer's Disease Versus Forgetfulness–How to Know When to Seek Help

Alzheimer's Disease Versus Forgetfulness–How to Know When to Seek Help
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Jingduan Yang
Aging comes with many challenges, sometimes including ones that can affect our ability to function in daily life—such as those relating to memory. With the prevalence of Alzheimer's Disease, some may worry they are on that path. What are the factors that reduce our capacity to remember? How do Alzheimer's and forgetfulness differ? How do we know when to seek help?

What Is Forgetfulness?

Forgetfulness can be a normal sign of aging. Signs of forgetfulness include an inability to recall important dates or names, occasional inability to recall everyday words, not remembering where you set down your car keys, and reduced ability to multitask. Of course, these situations can happen to anyone, but if it happens with more frequently and affects our daily life and work, then we need to explore the cause.
Fortunately, in most cases, forgetfulness in and of itself is not an indicator of Alzheimer's disease but it does provide us with some warning signs of other health issues. First, it tells us that the brain is aging. People over the age of 40 are more prone to forgetfulness. In general, human memory is at its prime around the age of 20, and may begin to decline more noticeably from our 50s or 60s. As we age our memory can worsen.
People in their 20s and 30s may also problems in this area as well, due to other factors—in addition to age—forgetfulness may also be related to people's lifestyles—both younger and older. Lack of sleep may lead to forgetfulness. If a person cannot sleep more than seven hours a day on average, then there may be problems with his/her memory. Alcohol can also affect memory, as alcohol damages the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory. Memory loss is a common symptom in patients with chronic alcoholism.
In addition, a poor diet can also have an impact on memory. High cholesterol, high-fat, and processed foods can all take a toll on the brain's memory functionality. If the food lacks vitamin B12, it is also easy to cause brain fog (clouding of consciousness).

Causes of Forgetfulness

Under what circumstances do people suffer from forgetfulness?
Chronic mental stress and nervousness will gradually fatigue our brain cells, interfere with new memory generation, and affect our retrieval of memories. Moreover, traumatic events that affect emotions can also impair our brain's ability to process memory, attention, and decision-making from information received.
Modern-day lifestyle is very dependent on electronic products and networks. Though computers and mobile phones have brought us many conveniences, due to our over-reliance on them, they can also affect our memory. Nowadays, people no longer need to use their brains in the same capacity as in the past and rely on computers and mobile phones to record and store information. With this major decrease in use, some brain functionalities, including memory, will gradually become idle and weaken.
That is not all. Smoking e-cigarettes (vaping) also affects memory. New research finds that regular vapers, both full and young adults, have poorer attention and memory than non-vapers of the same age. People who regularly smoke e-cigarettes are more prone to brain fog. Common symptoms are muddled thinking, and the analysis of problems is not as clear and sharp.
If you have memory loss problems beyond age-related forgetfulness, you should consider whether you have other diseases and health issues. The first thing many people may wonder about is the possibility of degenerative neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. In addition, we also need to consider the possibility of brain tumors, brain ischemic lesions, brain infections, as well as autoimmune diseases like lupus erythematosus.
Kidney disease can also cause dementia because it can cause abnormalities in blood cells. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) believes that "kidney oversees the marrow," which includes bone marrow and brain marrow. The kidney is the center of yin and yang in the human body and is the "innate foundation" or the foundation of life. Kidney yin is the foundation of yin fluid in the whole body, which moistens and nourishes organs and tissues.
If a person has kidney deficiency and insufficient kidney essence, concentration and memory will also decline. In addition, people with liver disease can also develop hepatic encephalopathy, causing memory and vision problems. Pregnant women may also feel that they are prone to forgetfulness.
Another forgetfulness factor we need to prioritize in this respect is taking medicines. When you develop new symptoms you must first think about whether they may be caused by drugs. Both prescription and over-the-counter drugs can be the culprit of new memory problems. Many antidepressants, antacids, anticholinergics, antispasmodics, and cold and allergy medications can cause memory problems. There are also some people who, after undergoing cancer chemotherapy, develop "chemo brain," which refers to when memory deteriorates after chemotherapy.

Manifestations of Alzheimer's Disease

So which memory loss phenomenon is the manifestation of genuine Alzheimer's disease? They are mainly shown in the following aspects:
  • First is that memory loss becomes more obvious and gradually progresses. Alzheimer's patients will start to forget about previously known people in stages—sometimes they can recognize them, other times not.
  • Second, patients are more likely to feel lonely in the evening or at dusk.
  • Third, sometimes patients will become delusional and paranoid. For example, worrying about someone stealing their money, trying to harm them, and so on.
  • Fourth, the patient's behavior becomes very irrational and even childish.
If a person over the age of 65 gradually develops the above symptoms and continually worsen, they are likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease.

Ways to Improve Everyday Forgetfulness

Are there ways to improve memory and safeguard the cognitive function of the brain?
1. Maintain adequate sleep. We need to develop and keep a regular sleep habit and obtain quality sleep at the right times.
2. Keep your brain active. The more we use it, the better it becomes so try to keep your brain active with puzzles, crafts, word games, regular conversations, and reading.
3. Exercise regularlyEngaging in a diverse range of physical activities offers numerous benefits for older adults, including improved physical function, reduced risk of falls and fall-related injuries, and enhanced memory. It is recommended to incorporate different types of exercises into a well-rounded fitness routine, including aerobic activities, muscle-strengthening exercises, and balance training.
A study conducted at the University of British Columbia revealed that engaging in regular aerobic exercise, which raises your heart rate and induces sweating, has a positive impact on the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning.
4. Eat a healthy diet. Eating is an essential part of our lives, and making informed nutritional choices can have a significant impact on our health. Swap out saturated fats for healthy oils and eat whole grains instead of refined carbohydrates.
In addition, we must maintain a happy mood and relax whenever possible. TCM holds that people need to maintain the circulation and balance of qi (vital energy) and blood. When people feel calm, happy, and relaxed, the circulation of qi and blood will be sufficient. In this way, our brains will receive sufficient nutrition.

Last but not least is the power of faith. With good beliefs, people can maintain a happy and peaceful state of mind even when they are facing challenges in life.

Jingduan Yang, M.D. F.A.P.A. is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in integrative and traditional Chinese medicine for chronic mental, behavioral, and physical illnesses. He contributed to the books "Integrative Psychiatry," "Medicine Matters," and "Integrative Therapies for Cancer." Co-authored "Facing East: Ancient Secrets for Beauty+Health for Modern Age" by HarperCollins and "Clinical Acupuncture and Ancient Chinese Medicine" by Oxford Press. Dr. Yang is also the founder of the Yang Institute of Integrative Medicine and the American Institute of Clinical Acupuncture and the CEO of Northern Medical Center, Middletown, New York, since July 2022.