Virtually everyone has forgetful moments, but how do you know if your memory lapses are the normal day-to-day variety or a sign of something more serious like dementia? It’s a common concern, especially with increasing age.
Among Americans, the notion of losing mental capacity evokes twice as much fear as losing physical ability, and 60 percent of U.S. adults say they are very or somewhat worried about memory loss.
On a bright note, most memory blips are nothing to panic over. As you get older, your brain’s information-processing speed may decline, which means it may take you longer to recall who wrote the book you’re reading or the name of your childhood playmate.
The word is on the tip of your tongue, but even if you can’t recall it you’re able to restructure your thoughts to get your message across. This is quite normal, as are so-called “senior moments,” or as neuroscientists call them “maladaptive brain activity changes.” Examples include sending an email to the wrong person or forgetting about an appointment.
These occur because your brain perceives many of your daily tasks as patterns and may revert to its default mode network (DMN), the part of your brain responsible for your inward-focused thinking, such as daydreaming, during this time. In short, your brain takes a mini time out when you actually need its focused attention, causing a minor, but completely normal, lapse in memory.
Memory Loss: When to Worry
If changes in your memory or thinking skills are severe enough to be noticed by your friends and family you could be facing mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is a slight decline in cognitive abilities that increases your risk of developing more serious dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
If your mental changes are so significant that they’re interfering with your ability to function or live independently, it could be dementia. For instance, it’s normal to have trouble finding the right word on occasion, but if you forget words frequently and repeat phrases and stories during a conversation, there could be a problem.
Another red flag is getting lost or disoriented in familiar places (as opposed to needing to ask for directions on occasion). If you’re able to later describe a time when you were forgetful, such as misplacing your keys, that’s a good sign; a more serious signal is not being able to recall situations when memory loss caused a problem even though your loved ones describe it to you.
Other warning signs of MCI or dementia include:
– Difficulty performing daily tasks like paying bills or taking care of personal hygiene
– Asking the same question over and over
– Difficulty making choices
– Exhibiting poor judgment or inappropriate social behaviors
– Changes in personality or loss of interest in favorite activities
– Memory lapses that put people in danger, like leaving the stove on
– Inability to recognize faces or familiar objects
– Denying a memory problem exists and getting angry when others bring it up
10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is steadily increasing. Someone in the U.S. develops the disease every 66 seconds, and, by 2050, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is expected to nearly triple, reaching 13.8 million people. In 2016, it’s already the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and it’s one that has no known cure or proven way to slow its progression.
The Alzheimer’s Association also compiled these differences between symptoms of dementia including Alzheimer’s and typical age-related changes:
1 Typical age-related changes
2 Poor judgment and decision-making
3 Making a bad decision once in a while
4 Inability to manage a budget
5 Missing a monthly payment
6 Losing track of the date or the season
7 Forgetting which day it is and remembering it later
8 Difficulty having a conversation
9 Sometimes forgetting which word to use
10 Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find them
Certainly ‘brain freeze’ or brain fog is common at menopause simply due to changing hormones and a natural decline in our ability to recall quickly as we did when younger.
Dame Dr Shirley Bond has likened this to an overstuffed filing cabinet; what you want is in there but it just takes you longer to get it out. We have a lifetime of information stored in our brains so its not surprising if we slip up occasionally or can’t immediately recall something.
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