It’s true that one of the many warning signs of dementia is not only misplacing things, but also finding them in strange places where you don’t remember putting them. My father had Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and misplaced all kinds of things that I would eventually find in odd spots. One time, he put the pencil sharpener and stapler from our home office in his accordion case and then emphatically denied he did it. I didn’t have a full understanding of dementia-related behaviors back then, so I just thought he was trying to drive me crazy! But—and this is an important but—my father also had a number of other hallmark symptoms. And he had them pretty consistently.
We all lose track of our keys or glasses from time to time, but when you find them in strange places like the microwave, it can come as a bit of a shock. For caregivers who are familiar with dementia, a blip like this can be a considerable source of worry. Is losing things a sign of dementia, or is it chronic stress?
Common Causes of Forgetfulness in Caregivers
If you’re caring for a loved one—especially someone who has AD or another form of dementia—it’s likely that you are very busy and under a lot of stress. Caregiving turns our lives up-side down and can leave us feeling frazzled. If you’ve ever wondered, “Why am I always misplacing things?” you’re not alone. The following factors can contribute to absentmindedness on their own, but when combined, the results can be shocking.
Caregiving in the U.S. 2020, a joint report presented by the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP, found that 36 percent of family caregivers report high emotional stress and 17 percent report high physical strain. While short-term bursts of stress can help humans operate and complete tasks more efficiently, it has been shown that chronic exposure to stress impairs memory function and cognitive reasoning.
Shuteye is a luxury when caregiving. Whether you’re living with a loved one who has dementia and wanders constantly or the sheer stress of caregiving keeps you awake, getting the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night is a pipedream for most family caregivers. While you may be able to muddle through the day on only a few hours’ rest, the cumulative effects of poor sleep are very dangerous.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, sleep deprivation contributes to depression, irritability, anxiety, forgetfulness and fuzzy thinking. Beyond the immediate effects of a few wakeful nights, chronically disrupted sleep may have a lasting impact on physical and cognitive health. Researchers at the University of California Berkeley have discovered evidence that consistently poor sleep may be associated with increased aggregation of beta-amyloid protein and tau protein clusters in the brain—both predictive biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fatigue and Caregiver Burnout
High levels of caregiver burden and poor sleep make it incredibly difficult for family caregivers to prevent caregiver burnout. This state of total physical and emotional exhaustion is dangerous for caregivers and care recipients alike.
The Cleveland Clinic cites lack of control, role confusion, unrealistic expectations and unreasonable demands as additional factors that contribute to burnout. Symptoms include fatigue, depression, anxiety, negativity, difficulty focusing and mood swings. Research has shown that depression, especially depression compounded by anxiety, negatively affects certain aspects of memory performance.
A hallmark of the life of a family caregiver is the ability to juggle multiple duties, often to the point of feeling constantly overwhelmed. Although the ability to multitask is usually touted as a positive skill, the practice of doing multiple things at a single time can lead to distraction. According to John Medina, author of Brain Rules, the human brain can hold about seven pieces of information for a 30 second period. Without re-exposing or reminding yourself of where you left that missing set of keys, the memory is fleeting. Constant distraction from the task at hand has a significant impact on memory and may even impact overall cognition. Researchers have found that heavy duty multitaskers show much less mental organization, even when they are not multitasking.
Safeguarding Caregiver Physical and Mental Health
Even if you are not concerned that your memory lapses may be due to developing dementia, it’s still vital for you to take care of yourself. Chronic stress, sleep deprivation and caregiver burnout can actually affect your cognition and mood in ways that are similar to dementia. If these underlying issues are addressed and remedied early on, the effects are likely reversible. However, when psychological strain and a sleep deficit are prolonged, they can cause permanent damage to one’s mental and physical health.
Arranging some well-deserved respite care and catching up on sleep should minimize your brain fog. Don’t forget to prioritize your own doctor’s appointments as well to ensure new or worsening health issues are addressed in a timely manner. Medication side effects, hypothyroidism and even certain vitamin deficiencies can also contribute to forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.
Carefully track any other changes you notice in your mood, thoughts or behavior and cross check them with this list: 10 Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias. If you observe more of these red flags even though you are striving to meet your own needs, book an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. Request a complete workup including a Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) to evaluate your cognitive function. Regardless of the results, the physician will be able to recommend appropriate next steps.
Make the effort to safeguard your physical and mental health. Not only does your well-being and happiness depend on it, but your care recipient depends on it, too.