Have you ever misplaced something, searched for the item and in the middle of the search, forgot what you are looking for? If so, welcome to the club. Misplacing objects, forgetting things, occasionally driving and realizing you forgot where you were headed, and putting the milk in the cupboard, are common but frustrating experiences. These occurrences become more frequent as we age.
If you are the type of person who has been blessed with a good memory, this change can be extremely disconcerting. The “A” word leaps to mind (Alzheimer’s), followed by other worst fears, such as brain tumors, strokes, and various neurological impairments.
What was I saying? Oh, yes, I was talking about memory loss. With age, forgetfulness generally increases, while ability to concentrate decreases. Pay attention to your peers and you will notice that others are experiencing memory loss, particularly with name recall. A typical conversation while discussing a movie with my friends goes something like this: “It was a great movie and it had So and So in it. I can’t remember his name, but I know you will know exactly who I mean. He’s been in a lot of movies, but I can’t think of a single title right now. He starred in that movie opposite What’s Her Name.” If I am lucky, the other person fills in the blanks, but usually my friends are just as forgetful as I am.
The average adult brain is made up of over 100 billion nerve cells. We used to think that the brain stopped developing when we were young, but we now know that we can continue to develop our minds at least in to our 70’s and that there is no age limit on learning new things. We learn more slowly as we age. Comprehension and reaction times slow. Multi-tasking becomes more difficult as we grow older. Short-term memory suffers far more quickly than long-term memory. We oldsters can likely remember who the U.S. President was in 1970, but are unable to recall what we had for lunch yesterday or today.
In spite of all this reassurance, we still wonder if something is wrong. How do we know when to be concerned? Here are some possible early indications of Alzheimer’s or other cognitive abnormalities:
- Repeatedly asking the same question after it has been answered.
- Inability to complete familiar tasks.
- Increasingly showing poor judgment.
- Decline in the ability to think abstractly.
- Changes in personality and mood with no apparent cause.
In short, it is normal to forget how to add, but abnormal to be confused about the concept of numbers. It is all right to forget where you put your keys; forgetting what your keys do is cause for concern.
There are many treatable conditions that can cause cognitive impairment, so it is important to obtain a good medical evaluation before concluding that your cognitive decline is normal aging. Hearing loss, sleep problems, thyroid disease, psychiatric disorders, stress, vitamin deficiency, alcohol, and drugs are just a few factors that can have an impact on our ability to think, communicate, and function effectively. Always talk to your medical provider about changes in your health.
Next week I will provide some tips on what you can do to help slow the process of mental decline.