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Cognitive Issues in Seniors: Everything You Need To Know

Updated on December 30, 2019
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Melissa Andrews is the Content Marketing Strategist for Paradise Living Centers, an assisted living center for seniors located in Arizona.

Many seniors struggle with memory loss and other cognitive issues, which tend to worsen as they get older. And while some of these are quite common and expected of the aging brain, some cognitive problems – like Alzheimer’s and dementia – can be distressing and overwhelming for the person concerned, the family, and the caregiver/s of those living in a nursing home or an assisted living facility.

Technically, cognitive impairment refers to any problems or difficulty in performing the normal functions of the conscious brain. It may come on suddenly or gradually and can be temporary or permanent, depending on the underlying causes. Cognitive decline usually affects a person's perception, concentration, memory, and reasoning skills.

Causes of Cognitive Impairment in Seniors

Like many other problems and health issues in seniors, cognitive decline is often multifactorial or of more than one cause.

Common causes of cognitive decline in seniors may include one or more of the following:

Vitamin/Nutrient Deficiency

B vitamins and folate are essential to brain function, especially vitamin B12, which protects the brain neurons. The decline in the levels of these vitamins and nutrients is typical in seniors because their body's nutritional absorption rate is not as good as when they were younger. Thus, making it more difficult for them to get the amount of B12 and other vitamins that the brain and body needs.

Side Effects of Medications

Many seniors take sedatives, tranquilizers, and anticholinergic medications. While these medicines may relieve them of pain/discomfort from other illnesses, they can affect and interfere with proper brain function.

Hormonal Problems

The thyroid gland is responsible for controlling metabolism in the body, and any problems in the thyroid can lead to memory decline and difficulty in concentrating.

Also, imbalances in sex hormones may affect proper cognitive functions.

Metabolic Imbalances

Seniors are prone to having abnormal levels of sodium, glucose, or calcium in their blood. These abnormalities in blood chemistry and/or dysfunction of vital body organs, like the kidney and the liver, sometimes affect brain function.

Substance Abuse/Withdrawal

The abuse of alcohol and chronic overuse of substances – both illicit and prescribes – can cause a severe decline in a person’s cognitive skills and impair brain function.

Psychiatric Illness

Psychiatric conditions affect a person's ability to think and concentrate properly, and may also cause paranoia and, in worse cases, late-life psychosis.

Other psychiatric illnesses seniors may suffer from include: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other forms of mental problems that may have been already diagnosed much earlier in life.

Damage to Brain Neurons

Head injuries, stroke, and other forms of cerebral small vessel diseases can damage the blood vessels in the brain and, consequently, brain neurons.

Neurodegenerative conditions, on the other hand, can have adverse damage and even kill brain neurons, which may lead to mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

Some symptoms of MCI or Mild Cognitive Impairment are the following:

  • Always losing or misplacing things

  • Forgetting urgent appointments and events

  • Having difficulties in remembering the names of people

  • Difficulty in following the flow of a conversation

When an aging family member is showing these symptoms or when lapses in their memory occur frequently, it's time to consult a doctor for a proper assessment, evaluation of symptoms, and advice on appropriate care.

Preventing Cognitive Decline

Because prevention is infinitely better than cure, seniors and their families need to take preemptive measures to lessen the risk of memory loss and – believe it or not – it's easier than most people think! In fact, the same practices and activities for graceful aging and physical vitality also contribute to a healthy brain.

Seniors are encouraged to:

  • Quit smoking and other vices as they are detrimental to physical and mental health.

  • Stay away from stress or find ways to manage stress better. The stress hormone, Cortisol, can cause damage to the brain over time and lead to cognitive issues.

  • Get enough sleep, as sleep is essential to memory consolidation and the growth of new neurons.

  • Maintain a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, and foods rich in omega-3, which are good for the brain and improves memory.

  • Start a regular exercise routine that includes cardio and strength training. Exercising regularly may reduce the risk of developing dementia and slow the rate of deterioration among those who are already experiencing cognitive problems.

Socially engage with family and friends, and continue to make new relationships. Social interactions can significantly reduce stress and keeps the brain active.

On Age-related Memory Loss

Most of society has accepted memory loss and cognitive decline as a “normal” part of aging, but this does not mean that cognitive issues in seniors are inevitable. Even those with MCI and more serious cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s have a chance of preventing their condition from getting worse and, maybe, return to normal.

The brain is a mighty organ that is capable of producing new cells at any age or stage in life. But as with most things, you have to use it or risk losing it. With that said, it's vital for seniors, and the people who care for them, to make sure that they maintain a healthy lifestyle, with enough physical and social activities for preventing stress and cognitive decline.

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    • bhattuc profile image

      Umesh Chandra Bhatt 

      2 months ago from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India

      Interesting and well explained. Thanks.

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