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It is not unusual to occasionally forget where you put your keys or glasses, where you parked your car, or the name of an acquaintance. As you age, it may take you longer to remember things. Not all older adults have memory changes, but they can be a normal part of aging. This type of memory problem is more often annoying than serious.
Memory loss that begins suddenly or that significantly interferes with your ability to function in daily life may mean a more serious problem is present.
Confusion or decreased alertness may be the first symptom of a serious illness, particularly in older adults. Health problems that can cause confusion or decreased alertness include:
Alcohol and many prescription and nonprescription medicines can cause confusion or decreased alertness. These problems may develop from:
Other causes of confusion or decreased alertness can include:
Conditions in the environment that can cause changes in the level of consciousness include:
Many times other symptoms are present, such as a fever, chest pain, or the inability to walk or stand. It is important to look for and tell your doctor about other symptoms you experience when confusion or decreased alertness occurs. This can help your doctor determine the cause of your symptoms.
A decrease in alertness may progress to loss of consciousness. A person who loses consciousness is not awake and is not aware of his or her surroundings. Fainting (syncope) is a form of brief unconsciousness. Coma is a deep, prolonged state of unconsciousness.
Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
Many things can affect how your body responds to a symptom and what kind of care you may need. These include:
You have answered all the questions. Based on your answers, you may be able to take care of this problem at home.
Symptoms of a heart attack may include:
The more of these symptoms you have, the more likely it is that you're having a heart attack. Chest pain or pressure is the most common symptom, but some people, especially women, may not notice it as much as other symptoms. You may not have chest pain at all but instead have shortness of breath, nausea, or a strange feeling in your chest or other areas.
Problems with memory, judgment, or problem solving include things like:
Confusion may range from mild to severe. A person who is confused may:
Symptoms of a stroke may include:
Many prescription and nonprescription medicines can affect your memory. A few examples are:
Symptoms of difficulty breathing can range from mild to severe. For example:
Severe trouble breathing means:
Moderate trouble breathing means:
Mild trouble breathing means:
Based on your answers, you may need care right away. The problem is likely to get worse without medical care.
Based on your answers, you may need care soon. The problem probably will not get better without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
Call911or other emergency services now.
Based on your answers, the problem may not improve without medical care.
Based on your answers, you need emergency care.
After you call 911 , the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength (325 mg) or 2 to 4 low-dose (81 mg) aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
As you age, it is normal to experience some memory lapses. Usually, an occasional memory lapse does not mean you have a serious problem. Try these steps to help improve your memory:
Ginkgo biloba is a popular herbal treatment for memory problems. But studies have not shown that ginkgo biloba helps improve memory or prevent dementia.footnote 1 Before you use any treatment for a memory problem, discuss the potential risks and benefits of the treatment with your doctor.
Living with a family member who has a decline in memory, problem-solving ability, learning ability, or judgment (dementia) is hard. To ensure your family member's health and safety, give him or her short instructions when teaching a new task. Break the task down into simple steps. You may find it helpful to give the person written instructions.
Call your doctor if any of the following occur during home treatment:
You can sometimes reduce the impact of age-related memory problems. The saying "use it or lose it" applies to your memory. Your best defense against a memory problem is to stay healthy and fit.
Prevent accidents and injuries that might lead to memory problems.
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
You can help your doctor diagnose and treat your condition by being prepared to answer the following questions:
CitationsBirks J, Grimley Evans J (2009). Ginkgo biloba for cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineKathleen Romito, MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal MedicineAdam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Current as ofMarch 20, 2017
Current as of: March 20, 2017
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
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