Is it Alzheimer’s when you forgot where you put your car keys, can’t find the right word or simply don’t remember what time you agreed to meet up with friends?

Memory loss is a big concern for people who are aging, but it’s a pretty big jump from not being able to remember an acquaintance’s name to Alzheimer’s, said Dr. David Merrill, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California Los Angeles’s Semel Institute.

If you’re concerned about memory loss, it warrants slowing down, taking a deep breath and considering what’s going on. It’s not necessarily Alzheimer’s, Merrill said.

Multiple treatable conditions can mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including hypertension, substance abuse and psychiatric disorders, Merrill said.

High blood pressure can lead to a slowdown in information processing, but it can be treated with changes in lifestyle and medications, Merrill said. Overindulging in alcohol can cause memory loss, but the symptoms of substance abuse can be relieved when a person stops using alcohol, he said. Mental illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder can also impair memory, but can be treated with medication and an increase in physical activity.

No direct diagnosis
Accurately diagnosing dementia is possible by a skilled medical professional; Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is a diagnosis of exclusion, Merrill said. When doctors determine that a condition is not anything else, what’s left is that it might be Alzheimer’s.

Only after death though an autopsy can Alzheimer’s be accurately diagnosed by looking at “the plaques and tangles in the brain,” Merrill said.

In the past decade scientists have made advances using technology to scan the brain and examine the size and formation of the hippocampus, the area involved in verbal memory and learning, Merrill said.

“A brain scan can quantify size, it’s noninvasive and relatively inexpensive,” Merrill said.

A healthy older person will lose 1 to 2 percent volume of the hippocampus per year, but a person with Alzheimer’s will lose 4 to 5 percent a year, Merrill said.

Researchers are testing new methods to identify other conditions that are mistaken for Alzheimer’s. In a recent, unpublished study of 22 patients at University of California Los Angeles Cognitive Health Clinic, scientists used software designed to measure the volume of multiple brain regions and tests to evaluate the participants’ brains. Only five of the 22 people with memory loss showed brain shrinkage patterns characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. The remaining cases were a combination of causes from vascular disease, depression, head trauma and substance abuse.
Better health overall
Regular exercise can help change the brain in positive ways to improve memory and thinking skills, Merrill said.
“One reason to improve general health is because that can help improve brain health. Being proactive and more physically active can help grow new connections between the brain synapsis,” Merrill said.

So not only does working out help your body become healthier, it helps boost the size of the hippocampus for a better brain, he said.