2. Could it be your medication?
For nearly three decades, Sidney Watson, 72, of Griffin, Ga., took a long list of drugs. Some lowered her high blood pressure, calmed her asthma and eased the pain of osteoporosis; others quelled her deepening depression. Her longtime family doctor had prescribed them all and, good patient that she was, she took them all.
"But I kept feeling worse, not better," Watson recalls. "I had severe dizzy spells, I'd lose my balance and one time I couldn't find the post office." Each time she saw the primary doctor, he'd say, "Let's try this," and hand her another prescription. By the time she was referred to Armon B. Neel Jr., a geriatric pharmacist and AARP medication expert, she was taking 17 different drugs.
"It was no surprise to me that she was so sick," says Neel. "No one had bothered to check what she was taking, let alone how each drug interacted with others." Today Watson takes five pills a day — two are vitamins — and feels much better. "Dr. Neel helped me see that the doctor was treating the disease, not the patient," she said. "I'll never take another medication without asking a lot of questions first."
Why it happens: Because the body metabolizes and eliminates medication less efficiently as we age, drugs can build up and cause memory glitches and other side effects that look very similar to Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
What to do now: Tell your doctor about every drug you take, including supplements. If troublesome symptoms develop after starting a medication, you may be having a bad reaction. Don't just stop taking your meds, but ask your doctor about options. The American Geriatrics Society publishes the Beers Criteria, a list of drugs that should be used with caution, or not at all, by older people.
3. Could it be depression or another mental health disorder?
"Depression, either caused or exacerbated by stress and anxiety, is a serious illness that affects mood, memory, reasoning and behavior, particularly in older people," Lipton says.
Why it happens: When someone is depressed, regions of the brain crucial for memory, thinking, mood, sleep and appetite are impaired, says Majid Fotuhi, founder of NeurExpand Brain Center in Columbia, Md. How to tell the difference? A depressed person would express sadness and say, "I don't know what's the matter with me" or "I can't concentrate." Someone with Alzheimer's-related depression may not realize he or she has memory problems and might not want to start new activities, but wouldn't necessarily feel sad.
What to do now: Get evaluated for depression by a psychiatrist, neurologist or geriatrician affiliated with a memory disorder clinic or major medical center. Depression isn't something you can "just snap out of," but it can be treated successfully with medication, regular exercise, cognitive therapy and stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga or prayer.