Updates from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Hospital Foundation
This is Part 3 of a three part series. Part 1 on dementia published on Nov. 14, and Part 2 on Alzheimer’s and other dementia published on Nov. 19. Part 3 will discuss normal memory loss and the impact of COVID-19.
We’ve all had moments of forgetfulness. Times when we forget where we’ve placed our keys or can’t remember a name or phone number. Times when a memory alludes us. As we age most begin to wonder if our absentmindedness is something more. For most, lapses in memory are a normal process of aging and not an indicator of mental deterioration or the start of dementia.
The primary difference between normal age-related memory changes and dementia is the former isn’t disabling. People experiencing memory challenges often have a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Those with MCI start to show a slight decline which while noticeable, isn’t serious enough to affect a person’s ability to carry out everyday activities. Cognitive disorders can be caused by a variety of factors. Hormonal imbalances, substance abuse, physical injury to the brain, thyroid, kidney or liver problems, and medication side effects are examples of what can cause MCI. Depending on the underlying cause or causes, cognitive decline can begin gradually and may be temporary or more permanent.
A question being raised more and more is will COVID-19 have any impact on long-term memory and cognitive decline. While not enough time has elapsed to make a call on this, there has been speculation based upon what is known about the brain’s immune system. Neuroimmune cells sit at connections between synapses (brain cells) which is critical for memory formation. Some theories speculate they may be susceptible to damage as they are activated by the COVID-19 virus.
At times of infection, these immune cells activate and cause microglia (cells that rid other cells of waste products) to change and envelope pathogens (cell debris). As this happens they often destroy or eat away at the neuronal connections which are vital for memory storage. It is unclear how this virus will respond and this is not unlike how cognitive decline is effected by other illnesses. COVID-19 patients are certainly experiencing neurological symptoms such as the loss of smell and taste, delirium, and chronic fatigue.
There are many things that can be done to maintain brain health. Research shows that mentally stimulating activity such as puzzles, reading, painting and crafts is helpful. Using your muscles and engaging in physical activity spurs the development of new nerve cells, lowers blood pressure and can reduce mental stress. Diet, watching cholesterol, and improving blood sugars can also slow memory loss. Caring for your emotions and building your social network helps ward off depression and stress which can contribute to memory loss.
If you have concerns about your memory and brain health talk to your physician. There are tests to determine the degree of memory impairment and to diagnose the cause. Your physician can review your medications and adjust if needed. They can perform a physical exam and basic neurological evaluation. It’s important to remember that sometimes the causes can be treated and cognition can improve. Finding out the cause of the problem is important to determine the best course of action.
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