If You (or your loved one) Have Been Diagnosed With Memory Loss, You Need to Know This!
By Luciana Mitzkun
Most people diagnosed with memory loss complain about short-term memory loss, but not long-term memory loss. In fact, most people notice that their long-term memory is excellent! Long-term memories are fragmented and stored in the outer layers of the brain, where they are best protected from the brain’s natural aging process. These memories are solidified and supported by strong synapses, the connections between brain cells.
Long-term memories may have been accessed many times over the course of a lifetime, and with every time that information is accessed its memory becomes sturdier. The more often a memory is recalled, the stronger it is retained. Therefore it is relatively difficult to forget a long-term memory; it may take a catastrophic brain event for that to happen.
Difficulties in retaining short-term memories, however, are common, and a majority of people with memory loss have this problem. Although these memories are by definition tagged to be discarded soon—sometimes in mere hours or days—the brain may experience problems in retaining the information for its entire intended duration.
Short-term memory loss can be extremely frustrating. We use short-term memory for almost everything we do and we depend on it to do even the most mundane of tasks. We need this kind of memory to:
- Keep track of common objects
- Use the name of a person we just met
- Remember something we just read or heard
- Know why we walked into a room
- Follow instructions and directions
- Schedule and show up on time for appointments
- Follow current events.
Short-term memory loss may not impede the completion of some of our larger projects, but it does hinder our ability to complete some of the necessary small steps involved in the task. It forces us to utilize more time and organization to do things that may have been done quickly and effortlessly in the past. It increases our margins of errors. It is annoying to us.
Thus, it is not uncommon for those affected with memory loss to experience high levels of irritation, anger, and even anxiety. If you have short-term memory loss and have experienced some of those feelings, you are having a very human reaction to a very frustrating situation. Understanding the nature of your memory loss and learning strategies to minimize its effects may help mitigate these feelings.
Is it dementia?
One of the main concerns of those living with memory loss is distinguishing it from dementia. Memory loss is a condition that most people will experience at some point in their lives and with which we all must learn how to live. Dementia is a more pervasive condition; it implies an interference in the ability to conduct our activities as usual.
People affected with memory loss may be diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Although memory loss can increase with time, not everyone with MCI will experience a worsening of the symptoms. Many learn how to manage symptoms and adopt strategies to minimize the risk of progression. Life goes on as planned.
In some cases, however, memory loss does become more severe. This progression is generally a slow process that may take many years, and can be mitigated by the adoption of memory-supportive strategies. The more effective and disciplined MCI patients are in adopting such strategies, the longer they may be able to avoid a progression to dementia.
To be considered dementia, memory loss must be accompanied by other cognitive deficits, and the symptoms must be severe enough to interfere with the ability to conduct daily activities of life.
Dementia is a very relative diagnosis. Basically, if you are able to continue your lifestyle despite memory loss, you don’t have dementia. You may use calendars, reminders, post-it notes, labels, calls from friends, strings on fingers—regardless of the memory aids you may use—if you are able to accomplish your tasks and goals (even if it takes a little longer and you have a few trials and errors), you do not have dementia, you have MCI.
The fundamental difference between MCI and dementia, is that those with dementia are unable to successfully accomplish their goals without outside assistance. If your symptoms require reliance on a loved one or a friend to keep you safe and on track, and you need help accomplishing mundane tasks, you do have dementia.
In practical terms, however, regardless of the diagnosis you receive—memory loss, MCI, or dementia—they all require adoption of the same strategies for retaining and retrieving memory and for stimulating brain functioning. It will be equally important for you to care for your brain health, strengthen your synapses, learn cognitive enhancing strategies, and practice appropriate memory exercises.
These are your best weapons against the worsening of memory loss, MCI, and dementia. The name attributed to your condition is not nearly as important as adapting your lifestyle to keep it from progressing. Medication can help you only so far. Your determination in keeping your brain healthy is what will carry you through and be your greatest ally in the fight against dementia.
Do not let the frustration that comes with memory loss discourage you. There is much you can do to live well with memory loss, delay the onset of dementia, and establish a safer future for you and the ones you love. You can live a fulfilling life with memory loss and you can live a fulfilling life with dementia. It starts with you, your self-awareness, your self-discipline, your courage to do what it takes to care for yourself and fight cognitive impairment head on.
You will also find that most of your friends and loved ones are rooting for you and will be by your side throughout this journey. Let them be with you and for you, and accept help from those who can assist you. You don’t have to travel this road alone.