We've all forgotten a name, where we put our keys, or if we locked the front door. That doesn't mean we have dementia. It's normal to forget things once in a while. However, forgetting how to make change, use the telephone, or find your way home are probably signs of a more serious memory problem, such as mild cognitive impairment, dementia or the early stages of Alzheimer's.

Serious memory problems such as dementia affect your elderly parent's ability to carry out everyday life activities such as driving a car shopping, or handling money. Signs of dementia or other serious memory problems may include:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again
  • Becoming lost in places you know well
  • Not being able to follow directions
  • Getting very confused about time, people and places
  • Not taking care of yourself — eating poorly, not bathing or being unsafe

What is Dementia?

Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms that can be caused by a number of different dementia disorders that affect the brain. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with normal activities and relationships. They also lose their ability to solve problems and maintain emotional control, and they may experience personality changes and behavioral problems, such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations.

While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, memory loss by itself does not mean that a person has dementia. Doctors diagnose dementia only if two or more brain functions - such as memory and language skills -- are significantly impaired without loss of consciousness. Some of the diseases that can cause symptoms of dementia are Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, Huntington's disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Doctors have identified other conditions that can cause dementia or dementia-like symptoms including reactions to medications, metabolic problems and endocrine abnormalities, nutritional deficiencies, infections, poisoning, brain tumors, anoxia or hypoxia (conditions in which the brain's oxygen supply is either reduced or cut off entirely), and heart and lung problems. Although it is common in very elderly individuals, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process.

Treatment Options for Dementia

Drugs to specifically treat some progressive dementias are now available. Although these drugs do not halt the disease or reverse existing brain damage, they can improve symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. This may improve an individual's quality of life, ease the burden on caregivers, or delay admission to a nursing home.
Many researchers are also examining whether these drugs may be useful for treating other types of dementia. Many people with dementia, particularly those in the early stages, may benefit from practicing tasks designed to improve performance in specific aspects of cognitive functioning. For example, people can sometimes be taught to use memory aids, such as mnemonics, computerized recall devices or note taking.

What is the Prognosis?

There are many disorders that can cause dementia. Some, such as Alzheimer's disease or Huntington's disease, lead to a progressive loss of mental functions. But other types of dementia can be halted or reversed with appropriate treatment. People with moderate or advanced dementia typically need round-the-clock care and supervision to prevent them from harming themselves or others. They also may need assistance with daily activities such as eating, bathing and dressing.

What To Do if You Are Worried About A Parent's Memory

Caregivers who are worried about their aging parent's memory problems should make sure he or she sees a doctor. The doctor might conduct or order a thorough physical and mental health evaluation to reach a diagnosis. If your doctor thinks it's serious, your elderly parent may need to have a complete checkup, including blood and urine tests. Your elderly parent may also need to take tests that check memory, problem solving, counting and language skills. In addition, he or she may need a CAT scan of the brain. These pictures can show normal and problem areas in the brain. Once the doctor finds out what is causing the memory problems, ask about what is the best treatment for your parent.

A complete medical exam for memory loss should review the person's medical history, including the use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines, diet, past medical problems and general health. A correct diagnosis depends on accurate details, so in addition to talking with the patient, the doctor might ask a family member, caregiver or close friend for information.

Blood and urine tests can help the doctor find the cause of the memory problems or dementia. The doctor also might do tests for memory loss and test the person's problem-solving and language abilities. A computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scan may help rule out some causes of the memory problems.