Why do you lose memory when you get older? We forget where we put our keys. We lock ourselves outside our garage with the keys inside. I lose my purse or my glasses or the recipe I had in hand just a moment ago. Are these memory lapses normal or do they portend something more ominous – like Alzheimer’s or dementia? Or are these incidents just a natural condition of aging? Do seniors and memory loss just go hand in hand?
The Warning Signs
A man I once worked with began forgetting his passwords. Today there are too many passwords and pins to contend with anyway, but this man would forget a password he had written down a half-hour earlier. Because he forgot where he had written it down, he would create a new password and then just as quickly forget that one. As a result, his office wall was plastered with sticky notes filled with current and former passwords. We composed a binder containing his most important websites and passwords. He forgot it was there and the sticky notes began to accumulate once again on his office wall, as did his appeals for assistance.
Once someone who could fix anything, he now struggled with the most mundane tasks until came the realization that something was terribly wrong with his once sharp, analytical mind. He lost interest in most things: socializing with friends and family, attending entertaining venues, yard maintenance, personal hygiene, maintaining his health, and taking his prescription medications.
His business suffered along with his ability to earn and ultimately his marriage became a casualty, all of which led to depression, more apathy and alcohol abuse. Such was the track of someone exhibiting signs of early Dementia.
This man could sit and conduct a conversation and appear to be quite normal but when focus was demanded, everything fell apart. Where some issues should have been concerning for him, he was now apathetic. When he no longer took any interest in refilling prescriptions or taking his mandatory insulin, the situation became critical. It was at this point that the issue of care became a subject of discussion accompanied by his denial. As normal life began to unravel and continued to fall apart, that denial predominated: he insisted he was perfectly fine, didn’t require care because his wife was providing it, there was nothing wrong with his mind and he was not drinking to excess. This was a portrait of progressive cognitive decline.
What Defines Mild Memory Loss vs Dementia?
The occasional loss of one’s keys is not necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s or serious cognitive decline. Dementia is a slow loss of memory, thinking and reasoning skills, and ultimately a loss of brain cells and function. Scientists and the medical profession claim that Dementia once diagnosed cannot be reversed, unlike mild memory loss experienced by half the population over the age of 50.
There are 3 types of memory impairment:
- the first is age-related memory impairment where nothing works as efficiently as it did when we were younger. That includes our brain. You may not remember things as quickly as you once did, but this is a normal part of aging and not a reason for concern.
- the second is known as MCI or mild cognitive impairment. Symptomatically a person might experience memory loss, some difficulty speaking and disorientation but nothing so severe as to affect daily functioning. The concern about MCI is that 10-15% of those with MCI go on to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia.
- the third is Dementia whereby a person is unable to manage normal routines, has difficulty learning something new, has problems completing familiar tasks and people around you notice a deterioration in your capabilities.
The WHO estimates that 5-8% of the population will eventually live with some form of dementia. The upside of that prediction is that 92-95% of seniors will not!
What Can Seniors Do to Safeguard Cognitive Function?
- Experts stress the importance of a healthy lifestyle: regular exercise, fresh air, nutritious food, weight maintenance, being social and avoiding depression.
- Exercising one’s brain is as necessary as exercising one’s body so reading is preferable to a steady diet of television.
- Learning a new language or taking up a musical instrument are constructive, challenging and protective in that you push yourself into new learning territory.
- Mitigating stress wherever possible to lessen the risk of damage to your vascular system is good advice.
- Protecting your head from injury; wearing a protective helmet when cycling or while engaging in any exercise where head injury is a possibility. Head injuries can trigger cognitive decline, the most notable example being athletes who sustain a head injury.
- Wearing your seatbelt when driving to protect yourself in the event of an accident. Deliver yourself from undue harm whenever possible.
Then there is an interesting theory that people who are motivated and conscientious are less likely to develop cognitive impairment than those who are not.
If you are diabetic, monitoring your diet and taking your prescription medication regularly is compulsory.
Basically, anything you would do to safeguard yourself from stroke or heart attack applies to cognitive decline because if you neglect one, you compromise the other.
Some supplement suppliers recommend the B vitamins: B12, B6 & B3 as well as Ginkgo Biloba and/or Omega 3 Fatty Acids. But it is suggested you consult your healthcare provider before beginning any supplement regimen.
Senior Mind Games and other cognitive enhancers
- Crossword puzzles, Soduku, Scrabble, and any word searching exercises are excellent tools for promoting brain health. Video games hold some promise but research is still inconclusive as to their cognitive merit.
More familiar mind games are:
- Bridge where logic, reasoning, and interaction with others are valuable
- Gin Rummy where attention to detail is imperative
- Poker or the competitive BlackJack games: Checkers, Backgammon, Dominos and Chess. The fact that many long-term care homes make BINGO a regular social event may stem from the fact that it can be fun and participants have to pay close attention to detail. Hand-eye coordination is a bonus. Bingo is fast, it’s social and there are prizes to be won!
Not to be outdone are online digital exercises and games. A neurologist once told me not to waste money on one highly touted digital game but did promote Fit Brains Trainer or Brain Metrix and there are several others. Digital games can tune your brain and can be played anywhere there is WiFi, without the need for a partner.
Bottom Line: Aside from mental stimulation, the incorporation of games into the senior lifestyle usually entails other players and a social element which is a strong contributor to a healthy brain. Being an introvert is probably not a benefit as we age.
How Do Genetics Play a Role in Cognitive Decline?
It is not thought that vascular Dementia is caused by faulty genes but rather genes that influence our risk. In this scenario, lifestyle choices are important.
Apparently, we have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s or Dementia if our Mother had it. Keep in mind we are talking risk vs certainty. Because your Mother had it does not guarantee that her genes will trump a healthy lifestyle which includes diet, regular exercise, weight management, avoidance of Type II diabetes, social interaction, and the taking of one’s medication as prescribed. In other words, live your life in a manner that ensures peak performance. Look after your body as though it were your beloved car!
Seniors and memory loss are one of today’s predominant concerns, especially among the Boomer generation. However, science is telling us that with self-care, our brains in all likelihood will be there for us well into our senior years.
Disclaimer: You must not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other professional healthcare providers