3 Conditions That Cause Cognitive Decline (But Aren't Dementia)
It's natural to experience some cognitive decline as we age, but not all cognitive deficits are a result of dementia. There are a variety of hormonal conditions and nutrient deficiencies that can present similar symptoms.
If you’re having trouble concentrating or experiencing some memory loss, don’t panic just yet—rule out these three possibilities first. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with your health care provider to create the best care plan, no matter where your cognitive function concerns are coming from.
Believe it or not, something as simple (and easily fixed) as a nutrient deficiency can cause cognitive decline.
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vitamin B12 is critical to a number of cognitive functions, such as neurotransmitter production, DNA synthesis1, and maintaining nerve cell health. Sufficient B12 levels are also vital for regulating healthy methylation pathways2 and levels of homocysteine (a biomarker with massive health implications when elevated, including cardiovascular dysfunction and dementia).
When your body isn’t getting enough vitamin B12, it can cause a number of concerning dementia-like symptoms, like confusion, behavior changes, and memory impairment.
Vitamin D deficiency
Vitamin D is found throughout the nervous system3 and used by the body to support healthy cognitive function, working memory, and even mood. This fat-soluble vitamin helps transfer information between neurons and protect the structure and function of neurons as we age, and severe deficiency has been linked to visual memory decline4.
Thankfully, each of these deficiencies can be easily resolved by increasing daily intake of these vitamins (i.e., via diet and/or supplementation).
During menopause, many women fear they’re developing dementia when they experience symptoms of cognitive dysfunction5—such as difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, and confusion. These side effects can be attributed to changes in hormone levels, particularly a decrease in estrogen (which helps protect the brain from developing Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases).
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a common treatment for menopausal symptoms and can improve cognitive function in some women.
Thyroid disorders are also linked to cognitive impairment. Both hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) can cause symptoms such as forgetfulness, concentration problems, and confusion. Treatment for thyroid disorders typically involves hormone replacement therapy or medication to reduce thyroid hormone production.
If you have a thyroid disorder, working closely with an endocrinologist to regulate your levels (and resolve your cognitive symptoms) is key.
Cognitive decline doesn’t necessarily mean someone has dementia—conditions such as nutritional deficiencies, menopause, and thyroid disorders can all cause symptoms that resemble dementia. If you or a loved one is experiencing cognitive changes, it's important to speak with a health care professional to determine the underlying cause and develop an appropriate treatment plan.
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.