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MEMORY LOSS: a Growing Concern

By Gulshan Harjee, M.D. Email By Gulshan Harjee, M.D.
April 2015
MEMORY LOSS: a Growing Concern

Q: If I do a crossword puzzle every day, will that prevent me from having trouble with future memory loss?

Dr. Gulshan Harjee: There is more to it than simply having some fun with mental exercise. It is true that more than half the cases of memory issues are due to issues that life style could have prevented—but memory loss comes not only from need for mental stimulation. Among the causes are depression, diabetes mellitus, smoking, alcohol and drug use, obesity, nutritional deficiency, midlife hypertension, physical inactivity, sleep deprivation, and low educational status.

An aggressive program to curtail at least 10% of these modifiable risk factors could prevent almost 180,000 patients from having their memories compromised. To extrapolate this information, if we could modify 25% of these risk factors we could prevent close to 500, 000 cases of Alzheimer’s; worldwide that would mean about 3 million cases of Alzheimer’s.

We are living in an epidemic of Alzheimer’s. It is true that we are living longer and the baby boomers are here to stay, adding to the burden of this disease. Other causes of Alzheimer’s that have received media attention with athletes and soldiers are traumatic brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, both of which have raised public interest.

Lack of education and smoking as well as lack of exercise topped the list as causes of Alzheimer’s globally. Obesity has now become an epidemic, even in countries that previously reported starvation. This epidemic of obesity and diabetes is very worrying, particularly since these are being diagnosed much earlier, in the teens and 20s, which raises the issue of whether Alzheimer risk not only increases but perhaps the onset could be much sooner in the new generation.

What to do? Careful consideration and testing may be needed to find the cause of memory loss. Infections or thyroid issues may be involved. Drugs today cannot reverse memory loss but perhaps may slow it to a certain degree, especially when related to Alzheimer’s or hypertension. Changes in medication, nutritional supplementation, and treating depression can be considered.

Several medications have been blamed for memory issues, including sleeping pills and statins used for high cholesterol. Be careful also to use properly any over-the-counter or prescription antidepressants, antihistamines, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and pain medications given after surgery.

Physical therapy after a stroke, and regular physical activity at any age are to be encouraged. Before blaming the doctors for giving prescriptions that weaken your memory, get that excess weight off so you won’t need the diabetes medications, high blood pressure medications, or perhaps even the heart medications.

Mental stimulation and formal education do create a buffer which may protect from full blown Alzheimer’s in some cases. Many seniors who were noted to have died of other causes when they were formally educated in their youths were determined to have good cognitive function when they were alive even though autopsy may have shown pathological evidence of Alzheimer’s.

Awareness is vital. The G8 countries are requested to increase the awareness of noncommunicable diseases to prevent the huge burden of vascular diseases and Alzheimer’s that could set in very rapidly and very prematurely. A warning to all family members is very much in order: warning about obesity, diabetes, smoking, active lifestyle, etc. is very appropriate for parents and grandparents alike to tell their children.

Let’s do the right things and focus first on prevention and a healthy lifestyle.

[Gulshan Harjee, M.D., is a board certified internist in private practice with an emphasis on prevention. Please email your health and medical questions for consideration in this column to: gharjee@comcast.net. The material in this column is of a general nature, and must not be construed as specific medical advice. This column rotates monthly along with the Fitness Lifestyle column by Aarti Patel.]

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