We’ve all misplaced keys, forgotten why we’ve walked into a room or blanked out on an acquaintance’s name. When we are younger, subtle memory lapses don’t faze us, but as we get older we begin to worry whether or not we’re developing a cognitive problem.
While it’s true that brain changes are inevitable as we age, major memory problems aren’t one of them. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between normal age-related forgetfulness and the symptoms that may indicate a problem.
“Memory defines who we are,” Dr. Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and aging and the director of the University of California-Los Angeles Longevity Center tells Newsmax Health
. “Without our memory we have no past, can’t plan for the future nor enjoy the present.”
Small, the co-author of “Two Weeks to a Younger Brain,” with Gigi Vorgan, notes that memory loss is one of the greatest fears we face as we get older.
“It’s not surprising that we all have concern about age-related memory slips,” he notes. “The truth is that most of these middle-aged pauses and senior moments are harmless and do not progress. But as we reach older ages, the risk that they will progress to Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia that interferes with daily functioning increases.”
As we age, the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories may deteriorate with age. Hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and neuron growth also decline with age. Older people experience decreased blood flow to the brain which can impair memory and lead to changes in cognitive cells.
“The good news is that lifestyle changes we make everyday can have a major impact on age-related brain health,” says Small, author of the Brain Health Report
“Physical exercise, good nutrition, stress management and mental stimulation can lower our risk for cognitive decline.”
Here are some examples of normal age-related memory changes versus symptoms that may indicate you or a loved one may be suffering early signs of dementia.
Normal: You are able to function independently and pursue normal activities, despite occasional memory lapses. Caution: You have difficulty performing simple tasks such as paying bills, dressing appropriately, or practicing good personal hygiene.
Normal: You are able to recall and describe periods of forgetfulness. Caution: You can’t recall the times when memory loss caused problems.
Sense of direction.
Normal: You may pause to ask for and remember directions, but you don’t get lost in familiar places. Caution: You get lost or disoriented in familiar surroundings and are unable to follow directions.
Normal: You occasionally have difficulty finding the right word but have no trouble carrying on a conversation. Caution: Words are frequently misused, forgotten or garbled. Phrases and stories are repeated during a conversation.
Normal: Judgment and decision making ability are the same. Caution: You have trouble making choices and may exhibit poor judgment and inappropriate social behavior.
Small notes that mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is the intermediate stage between normal age-related cognitive changes and more serious problems that may indicate dementia. If you have mild cognitive impairment, it is likely that your family and friends are aware of the decline in your memory but you’re still able to function. It’s time to see a doctor when memory lapses become frequent enough to concern you or a family member.
“The doctor will ask a lot of questions about your memory including how long you’ve experienced these lapses and what type of things you find difficult to remember,” he says. “It’s also important to find out if there is a medical issue that may be contributing. Medication side effects, thyroid imbalance, anemia and a range of physical illnesses can be reversible causes of memory decline. Also, if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s, early treatment leads to better outcomes.”
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