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Published December 07, 2013, 04:02 PM

Minding our Elders: Are dad’s memory problems due to Alzheimer’s?

DEAR CAROL: My dad is 78 and his memory seems to be failing. I’m not sure if this is natural aging or if something is wrong.

By: Carol Bradley Bursack, INFORUM

DEAR CAROL: My dad is 78 and his memory seems to be failing. I’m not sure if this is natural aging or if something is wrong. I worry about Alzheimer’s disease even though there’s no family history. He’s had other health problems lately but no doctor has mentioned any problems with his mind. My mother goes with him to his appointments and she’s quite sharp. She tells me she’s not worried about Dad’s memory slips. Should I be concerned? Jen

DEAR JEN: Memory loss from natural aging tends to be more frustrating than life changing. People may forget a name, only to remember it an hour later, or walk into a room and briefly forget why they are there. These issues aren’t generally significant. If your dad’s memory loss is more severe or seems to affect the quality of his daily life, it may deserve a closer look.

A person is at a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease if there’s a family history, but many people who develop the disease aren’t aware of any genetic predisposition. That being said, while it’s true that your dad could be showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, there are other reasons that could be causing his forgetfulness.

You wrote that your dad’s had some health problems lately. Has he had any heart or stroke issues? Vascular dementia can be caused by stroke damage and also affects the memory. Even transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), often called mini-strokes, can contribute to vascular dementia.

How about his medications? Medication changes, dosage adjustments or medication interactions can cause dementia-like symptoms. Even if your dad hasn’t had drastic changes in his prescribed medication, aging can make people more susceptible to negative side effects. Also, some over-the-counter medications can affect memory. You dad’s pharmacist is a good resource for drug information, so you may want to use him or her as a resource.

How about your dad’s hearing? Many times people pretend to hear because they don’t want to ask people to repeat themselves. Then, if later they don’t recall part of a conversation, it can appear that they are suffering from memory loss.

Does it seem like your dad’s depending on your mom to supplement his memory? Many older married couples depend on each other to fill in the blanks to a degree, so the fact that they may support each other in this way doesn’t mean that there’s a big problem. However, constantly depending on a spouse can be a way to cover up problems, so consider how they interact.

Contemplate some of these ideas and then, if you still feel that your dad’s memory is slipping or that he’s easily confused, talk with him about scheduling a complete physical and then, if his general health checks out, requesting tests for cognitive issues. There are many types of dementia, so a neurologist is a good choice for these tests. A correct diagnosis is essential for proper treatment.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.