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Memory Loss: When to Talk to Your Doctor

When it comes to memory loss, it can be difficult to know what to do if you’ve noticed changes in yourself or a family member or friend. It’s natural to feel uneasy about voicing your worries, however, these are significant health concerns, and it's important to take action to figure out what's going on.

Talking with your doctor is an important first step. Dignity Health spoke with Judy Ardray from the Alzheimer’s Disease Association of Kern County about how to talk about memory loss with your physician.

Why are people hesitant to speak with their doctor about memory loss?

Judy: The reasons vary depending on the individual. Patients often wait for their doctor to initiate the conversation and vice versa. Some don’t recognize or acknowledge they are experiencing memory loss. Others may acknowledge their memory has declined but they, their family, and health care providers may consider the memory loss to be normal aging. Others are fearful of facing an Alzheimer's diagnosis.

How can people get comfortable with starting a dialogue with their doctor?

Judy: Having a conversation with your doctor about memory loss can be very uncomfortable, but if you start early, say when you become eligible for Medicare, that’s a good time to discuss Alzheimer’s dementia and your risk for the disease. Medicare covers annual cognitive screenings so be sure to request one. If you’re not yet Medicare eligible, keep a written record of memory changes that concern you and discuss with your physician.

What type of things should people be concerned about when it comes to memory loss or an increase in confusion?

Judy: When memory loss and confusion become consistent, it can interfere with a person's ability to manage everyday aspects of life. Maybe bills go unpaid or are paid multiple times, appointments are routinely missed, important items are misplaced and found in odd areas, or you can’t remember how to drive to a familiar place.

How do you know when memory loss is something more serious like dementia?

Judy: There are many medical issues that cause memory loss and confusion. The only way to determine if it's normal aging, dementia or another health issue is to talk to your healthcare provider.

When should someone consider having a conversation with their physician about memory loss or dementia?

Judy: If you're concerned, it's time. Ask your doctor to conduct a cognitive screening during your next visit and be prepared to discuss your concerns. Keep a journal of specific memory loss incidences. Even if screening results fall into a normal range, having good record of what’s happening in your everyday life is important for accurate diagnosis. Your doctor may order additional testing and lab work to determine if there are other health issues causing your memory loss.

What kinds of questions should you ask your doctor about memory loss?

Judy: In addition to a cognitive assessment, ask what other testing will be done. If your physician dismisses your concern as normal aging but you’re still concerned, ask for a referral to a neurologist.

If your doctor does testing, ask what they’re for specifically and when the results will be available.

If you are diagnosed with dementia, ask your doctor what the underlying cause is. Dementia is the overall term for declining cognitive function. A diagnosis can be the result of Alzheimer's, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal lobar disorder, or many other possibilities. Knowing the cause will help you and your family better understand what changes to expect as the disease progresses.

Ask what kinds of resources are available. There are many benefits to receiving an early and accurate diagnosis, including the opportunity to plan for the future, access support services and explore medication that may address some symptoms for a time. Many people are also interested in participating in research trials.

What should you do if you notice a loved one becoming more forgetful or mentally declining?

Judy: It is difficult, but start with a conversation. Express your concern about some of the changes you've noticed. Let them know you’d like them to see a physician to get a proper diagnosis - reminding them that memory loss and confusion can be caused by many treatable conditions. Keep a list of your specific concerns and offer to go with them to the doctor. If they’re not agreeable with your assessment, consider getting someone whose judgment they value such as a family friend, authority figure, or another family member to discuss the issue with them.

You’re not alone. There are resources to help provide peace of mind.

Call your local Alzheimer's Association at (661) 912-3053 or the 24/7 Helpline at (800) 272-3900 for information specific to your situation.