You must remember this

Posted on April 13, 2012

Six Things to keep in mind about memory loss.

Photography by Annette Chow

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Six Things to keep in mind about memory loss.

If you’re a member of the “Where did I put my keys?” club, you’re not alone.

 “Nobody really escapes the age-related changes that occur with the mind,” says UC Davis’ Michael McCloud, M.D., a geriatrician and healthy-aging expert. While memory loss isn’t the only kind of cognitive decline that happens as we age—processing speed and attentional abilities, for example, also are affected—it’s a big part of the story, and probably the one that scares people most.

What’s normal and what’s not? If we play with puzzles and eat bushels of blueberries, can we fight the fickle finger of fate? With one in eight Americans ages 65 and older diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, according to 2011 figures from the Alzheimer’s Association, a lot of us are confronting these questions. 

Here are six things to keep in mind.

1. Sometimes, it’s normal. Older than 60? Get used to it: Age-related cognitive changes in our seventh decade of life are normal, says McCloud. It may even start in our 50s. “Having trouble retrieving words and names, finding things are not at the tip of our tongue—that’s absolutely universal,” he says. The “normalcy” question is one of the most common, says McCloud, who in addition to practicing medicine is the founder of UC Davis’ überpopular Mini Medical School devoted to the second half of life, where he teaches classes such as Memory and Aging. “People want to know: Is it normal aging, is it Alzheimer’s or dementia, or something in between?” The fear of Alzheimer’s is a biggie among his patients, too, says neurologist John Schafer, M.D., of the Mercy Neurological Institute. “People ask, ‘If I’m having trouble remembering people’s names, will I develop Alzheimer’s?’” But science still isn’t good at answering that question, says Schafer. “Right now, we don’t have a good way of determining who will go on to develop full-blown dementia and who is not,” he says. “It’s a problem.”

2. Worsening symptoms are a red flag. OK, here’s the deal: Occasional memory lapses—such as  forgetting why you went into a room (or where you left those darned keys)—are no cause for alarm. But if it happens more and more or the decline is steep, call your doctor. “It’s when symptoms are worsening that someone should be concerned,” says Shawn Kile, M.D., a Sutter Neuroscience Institute neurologist. “If it’s progressive, I’d get it checked out.” Short-term memory problems are the most concerning kind, Kile says. “If you notice your spouse is repeating the same question within minutes, that’s troublesome,” he says, by way of example. “In Alzheimer’s, short-term is the first aspect of memory to be lost.” In most cases, adds McCloud, people who fear they have Alzheimer’s don’t; more commonly, they are found to have MCI, mild cognitive impairment, which affects one in four individuals older than 65. McCloud calls MCI the “border zone”—a place where simple interventions can sometimes help. “If patients have MCI, we don’t want it to progress to dementia, and we do frequently recommend mental stimulators, like crossword puzzles or learning a new language.” Which brings us to No. 3.

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