Confusion, Memory Loss, and Altered Alertness - Topic Overview
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
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.
- Dementia is a slow decline
in memory, problem-solving ability, learning ability, and judgment that may
occur over several weeks to several months. Many health conditions can cause
dementia or symptoms similar to dementia. In some cases dementia may be
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of
dementia in people older than age 65.
- Delirium is a sudden change in how well a person's brain is
working (mental status). Delirium can cause confusion, change the sleep-wake
cycles, and cause unusual behavior. Delirium can have many causes, such as
withdrawal from alcohol or drugs or medicines, or the development or worsening
of an infection or other health problem.
- Amnesia is memory loss that may be caused by a head injury, a
stroke, substance abuse, or a severe emotional event, such as from combat or a
motor vehicle accident. Depending upon the cause, amnesia may be either
temporary or permanent.
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:
- Infections, such as a urinary tract infection, respiratory infection, or sepsis.
- Alzheimer's disease.
- Asthma or
COPD, which cause a decrease in the amount of oxygen
or an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the
- Cardiac problems, such as
coronary artery disease, or irregular heartbeats
(arrhythmias), that reduce blood flow.
- Problems from
- Kidney or
liver failure, which causes high levels of toxins to
build up in the blood.
- Malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies caused
by health problems, such as long-term alcoholism (Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome).
- Mental health problems, such as
- Thyroid problems, such as
myxedema coma, or