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Home > Health & Fitness > Healthwise > Confusion, Memory Loss, and Altered Alertness
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.
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
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
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.
symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.
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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.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
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
Prevent accidents and injuries that might lead to memory
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
Birks J, Grimley Evans J (2009). Ginkgo biloba for
cognitive impairment and dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1).
January 7, 2013
William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & David Messenger, MD
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
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