Where are my reading glasses? Oh no- I have to introduce that person walking over to me and I can’t remember her name. What did I just come in to this room for?
Do these occurrences sound familiar? How can you tell if your worsening memory is just normal age-related lapses, forgetfulness due to stress or anxiety, or something more devastating? As you get older, it is very common to worry about memory lapses signaling the beginning of Alzheimer’s or an early onset of dementia. Forgetting details about an event, losing track of things or being unable to recall a specific word are concerns we all face as we age. People do experience minor changes in their memory and thinking skills as they get older. However, Alzheimer’s and dementia are NOT a normal part of the aging process. Memory loss, when it is severe, disrupts daily life and may be a symptom of Alzheimer’s or another dementia-related disease (Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, AIDS, stroke and others).
So what constitutes normal memory loss due to aging? Difficulty recalling names or trouble coming up with the right word is normal- from time to time. When this happens, you are most likely experiencing “slow” memory rather than a “broken” memory. As you get older, you notice that many things about your body slow down. It takes longer to heal from injury or illness, your running speed is definitely slower than when you were 20 or 30, your golf swing doesn’t go as high or as far and you are not able to multitask as many activities compared to when you were younger. Well, your mind and memory slow down as well. You are still storing and retrieving information, it just takes longer. Once reminded of the “lost” name or word, you can instantly confirm it. The information was not lost, it was still stored but you weren’t able to recall it at the time you wanted it.
The issue of losing track of things or forgetting dates /times is also a common problem as we age. However, this concern is most often due to distractions or overload. As you age, your problems increase. You no longer have the simple concerns such as what will be your next meal and studying for an exam. Now you have to think about your job, spouse, children, bills that need to be paid, household errands that need to be run, and often elderly parents to care for-that’s a lot to think about in one day! Mild, and typical age-related, memory loss is a reflection of slow recall or distractions that have prevented you from storing the information in the first place. Memory loss is severe (and not normal) when, given time and opportunity to focus, you are unable to store and retrieve important information that you focused on storing and retrieving. Let’s look at some other normal memory changes that most people will experience as they age:
- Slower thinking
- Slower retrieval of information
- More difficulty paying attention
- Need more cues to recall information (notes, words, pictures, smell, etc)
- Using less memorization skills to help you remember (visualization, organization)
- More difficulty making associations
- Decline in vision and hearing effecting memory
There are common causes that contribute to, or worsen, declining memory skills. These include high blood pressure, prescription drugs (and drug interaction between several prescriptions), poor nutrition, low blood sugar, depression, anxiety, lack of sleep or too much sleep, lack of activity and stress. Now let’s look at some specific behaviors or actions that differentiate between normal and abnormal memory changes:
|Memory loss that disrupts daily life||Sometimes forgetting names or appointments although frequently remember them later||Forgetting directions or other activities (like running water for shower but then getting dressed without taking a shower and water still running), asking for same information over and over|
|Confusion with time and place||Confuses day of the week though figures it out later||Forgetting where you are or how you got there, lose track of seasons or passage of time|
|Forgetting an experience||Forgetting part of an experience or details of an experience||Forgetting an entire experience|
|Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home or at work||Occasionally needing help with microwave settings or recording a TV show||Trouble driving to a familiar place, forgetting rules to a favorite game|
|Challenges with planning or solving||Occasional errors when balancing checkbook||Can’t follow familiar recipe, can’t keep track of monthly bills|
|New problems with words- speaking or writing||Sometimes having trouble finding the right word or forgetting which word to use||Trouble following or joining a conversation, repeat self over and over, stops in middle of conversation|
|Misplacing things||Misplace things from time to time but can usually retrace steps to find it||May put things in unusual places, lose something and unable to retrace steps to find it|
What can you do to mitigate the challenges to your memory as you age? Lots of things! You can give yourself time to remember, don’t try to remember everything-be selective, really pay attention when you are trying to remember new information and try to make associations (the more connections-the better the memory sticks). Environmental changes will also help: reduce noise, keep distractions to a minimum, keep a calendar with you, write notes to yourself and keep a list by the door. Not surprisingly, quitting smoking also benefits your memory.
What can you do to keep your memory sharp and save your memory? Here are the top 10 memory savers according to the University of Southern California’s Caregiver Resource Center (http://www.usc.edu/lacrc):
- Control your blood pressure
- Get enough sleep
- Manage your stress
- Keep medications to a minimum
- Eat a balanced diet
- Keep mentally fit- learn something new!
- Use alcohol in moderation
- Have your eyes and glasses checked
- Have your hearing aids checked
- Keep your heart healthy-exercise!
Alzheimer’s Association: http://www.alz.org. Accessed: August 12, 2012
University of Southern California Caregiver Resource Center: http://www.usc.edu/lacrc. Accessed: August 12, 2012
Geronguide: http://www.geronguide.com. Accessed August12, 2012