The memory is the most complex function of the brain and the least understood. The exact nature and position of memory in the brain is still being debated amongst psychologists today. However, something of the types of memory that we possess is known. The memory requires several steps in order to function properly, for example, acquiring information, storing the information and being able to recall the information as and when it is needed. Information is stored in the memory in three different stages – intermediate, short term and long term. Intermediate memory only lasts for a few minutes and enables about five to ten item to be stored.
This type of memory is quite susceptible to distraction. Short-term memory can last from just a few minute to a few hours, and has a larger storage capacity than intermediate memory. The information in the short term memory is sorted out into what is important and needs to be kept, this will be placed in the long term memory, and those that are not so important will be gradually discarded and will fade from memory. Long term memory can lasts from weeks to a lifetime. Long term memory consists of personal experiences and important events that have taken place in the past and knowledge. In order for long term memory to function properly, it needs the production of new proteins and new connections between nerve cells within the brain. Unfortunately, as we age our memory begins to deteriorate. In some people, they may develop a form of dementia.
Dementia is an irreversibly decline of mental ability, that is a result of physical changes in the brain. Dementia affects around ten percent of the UK population over the age of sixty-five. This is known as senile dementia and those that are affected with the condition under the age of sixty five are described as having presenile dementia. Early symptoms consist of the sufferer becoming restless and they will begin to lose their short term memory. Insomnia is also a consequence of dementia, as is confusion over things such as times, dates and days and unexpected mood changes. Everyday habits and events will also lose their natural logic, which ultimately causes the dementia patient to lose any sense of responsibility both for themselves and for others. Sooner or later, the patient will require round the clock nursing.
Dementia can be caused by a number of factors like injury, infection, and drug and alcohol addiction. It can even develop in the late stages of conditions such as syphilis and it has also been found to be hereditary in some cases. Other factors that results in dementia are diseases of the brain. Alzheimer’s disease used to be referred to as ‘second childhood’ or the person with the disease was described as eccentric. Today however, Alzheimer’s disease is recognised as the most common form of dementia in an elderly person, although it is possible for people in their mid fifties to develop the disorder. The reason why Alzheimer’s disease occurs is unclear.
The first signs the sufferer will develop is short term memory loss, which may appear as regular bouts of simple mindedness that we all get from time to time though in reality it is much more serious. An example of the kind of memory loss an Alzheimer’s patient will experience is for instance, the patient may remember who lived next door to them over twenty years ago, where as they will have forgotten what they did that particular morning. Gradually the patient will be unable to cope with day to day situations for example, they may become disorientated in otherwise usually familiar surroundings, they may lose the ability to concentrate and even be unable to recognise friends and members of the family. In the later stages, the patient will be unable to control their emotions, with their speech making little sense.
Looking after the mentally ill, with any form of dementia is a stressful task that takes up a lot of time. It also not only puts an enormous amount of pressure on the whole family, it can also be emotionally draining on everyone concerned, as seeing a loved one deteriorate is heartbreaking when there is nothing you can do to help. Although some families may feel obliged to look after the patient, it is important to recognise that there is help at hand and asking for this help does not mean you are a failure.
The services that are there to help include ‘meals on wheels’, home help, day care and a clean linen service. There are charitable organisations such as Age Concern that also offer help in the form of ‘granny sitting services’ or help with lifts. Some geriatric hospitals have one or two beds set aside for respite care in order for the carers to have a break. In most cases, patients need to be placed in a home for full time care from professionals.
Although the memory disorders, that have been discussed so far, have all been incurable, there are some disorders that may affect the memory for a short period of time. A short period of time can mean anything from as little as a few hours, for instance, someone who has had a large amount of alcohol may wake up the next day and not remember what they did the previous evening, or the memory loss could last a few weeks. In either case, the important thing is that, the majority of the time it is not permanent.
Short term memory disorders include organic brain syndrome and amnesia. Organic brain syndrome is a result of trauma or severe emotional disturbances, for example, fear and horror. These experiences cause memory disturbances as well as disorientation, poor logic and behavioural changes. Other triggers that may bring about this syndrome are epilepsy, the usage of drugs, cancer that is outside the head and severe infections.
A loss of existing memory is known as amnesia. There are a number of things that could cause this, for instance, injury to the brain that could be caused by a bow to the head, a stroke, a bleeding blood vessel, a tumour, and an abscess, an infection such as meningitis or encephalitis and convulsions. Other factors that may cause memory loss are hysteria, post traumatic stress syndrome, a number of psychiatric conditions, such as fugue states, high fever, exposure to extreme cold, dramatic changes in the blood chemistry, for example, low blood sugar and salt levels, deprivation of oxygen will cease the memory from working properly and all short term memory will be lost and a build up of cerebrospinal fluid will cause the memory to be lost under the pressure.