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Regardless of age, most of us can admit to having “senior moments” from time to time.
You know, those times you simply blitzed on the name of a co-worker or walked into a room...and couldn’t remember why.
Luckily, research shows occasional mental slip-ups like these as we get older can be minimized through the use of brain exercises and cognitive challenges. But when frequent memory lapses or bouts of disorientation disrupt daily life, it suggests a more serious ailment. That’s why it’s important to understand the difference between age-related memory loss and life-altering dementia.
AGE-RELATED MEMORY LOSS
Dr. Jay Draeger has practiced internal medicine since the mid ‘80s. Today, his Folsom office focuses predominantly on geriatric care. He explains that people naturally experience varying degrees of memory difficulties as their brains age, and some encounter no changes at all. “We’ve all known people living with no evidence of memory loss well into their 90s.”
Draeger says “recent studies” prove the secret to sharp minds is keeping them active through activities such as:
- Reading regularly
- Doing crossword puzzles and teasers
- Performing concentration activities
- Learning new skills
- Learning a new musical instrument
For those with recollection challenges, doctors caution not to ignore underlying factors that can affect memory and may require medical attention. “Fatigue, boredom, depression or the influence of substances all can worsen memory loss,” says Draeger. “Often by fixing those conditions, you can significantly improve functioning of the brain.”
WHEN TO WORRY
When unexplained memory loss is severe or there’s a decline in cognitive abilities, it can signal dementias such as Alzheimer’s, a devastating brain disease that’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.
Named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who discovered the characteristic brain cell damage in 1906, Alzheimer’s affects as many as 5.1 million Americans. In California, the number of residents age 55 and older living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to double to 1.1 million by the year 2030.
Unlike natural aging, Draeger points out dementia impacts other areas of the brain, not just memory function. Distinct warning signs (visit stylemg.com for a list of 10), along with mental status exams, and more recently spinal taps and PET brain scans, help doctors confirm Alzheimer’s cases. An accurate diagnosis enables a patient’s loved ones to better understand the symptoms and plan for supportive care.
“In moderate Alzheimer’s stages, patients may just make poor judgments, for instance in terms of finances,” explains Draeger. “But then it gradually progresses to severe stages where they aren’t able to walk or talk or swallow properly in the end. That could occur over a couple of years, or a couple of decades.”
There currently is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and heredity appears to be the only known risk factor. For patients who choose to try and slow brain deterioration, Draeger says several treatment medicines have shown positive results in his patients.
Understanding that memory loss is not necessarily a normal part of aging can help us recognize when our loved ones might be suffering from something more serious and allow us to provide the care and support they need.
10 WARNING SIGNS OF ALZHEIMER’S:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- New problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality