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 Alzheimers or Dementia? Or 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 one 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 so we put together 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, accompanied by 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 going terribly wrong with his once sharp, analytical mind. He lost interest in many things: socializing with friends and family, attending social events, yard maintenance, personal hygiene, maintaining his health and taking his medications, in running his business and his ability to earn and ultimately in his marriage which became a casualty, all of which led to depression, more apathy and alcohol abuse. Such was the track of someone diagnosed with early Dementia.
This man could sit and conduct a conversation and appear to be normal but when focus was demanded, it all 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 preoccupation accompanied by his denial: as life fell apart 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 Alzheimers or serious cognitive decline, Dementia being 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. Certain medications can help provide some quality of life but sadly there is no cure.
What can Seniors do to safeguard cognitive function?
Experts will stress the importance of 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 and protective in that you challenge yourself and shake up your own expectations.
Other recommendations include mitigating stress wherever possible to lessen the risk of damage to your vascular system.
Protect your head from injury; wear a protective helmet when cycling or while engaging in any exercise where head injury is a possibility because head injuries can sponsor cognitive decline, the most notable example being athletes who sustain head injury. Wear your seatbelt when driving to protect yourself in the event of an accident, the bottom line being protect yourself from undue harm wherever possible.
Diabetes is a risk factor for the development of cognitive decline. If you are a diabetic, monitor your diet and take your prescription medication regularly. Basically anything you would do to safeguard yourself from stroke or heart attack applies to cognitive decline as well 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. 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 exercise are excellent tools for promoting brain health. Video games hold some promise but research is still inconclusive. More familiar mind games are: Bridge where logic, reasoning and interaction with others is valuable, Gin Rummy where attention to detail is imperative, Poker or the competitive BlackJack. Other games receiving high marks for being beneficial include Checkers, Backgammon, Dominos and Chess. The fact that many longterm 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. It’s fast, it’s social and there are prizes to be won!
Not to be outdone are online digital 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 which can tune your brain can be played anywhere there is WiFi and without the need for a partner.
Bottom Line: Aside from mental stimulation, the incorporation of games into the senior lifestyle entails other players and the social element which is a strong contributor to a healthy brain. Being an introvert is probably not a benefit as we age.
Can we defeat genetics which play a role in the risk for cognitive decline?
It is not thought that vascular Dementia is caused by faulty genes but rather genes which influence our risk of diseases which contribute to a diagnosis of vascular dementia. In this instance lifestyle choices play a major role.
Apparently we have a higher risk of developing Alzheimers 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 genes will trump a healthy lifestyle which includes diet, regular exercise, weight management, the avoidance of Type II diabetes, social interaction, and the taking of one’s medication as prescribed – in other words living one’s life in a manner which ensures peak performance.
Bottom line: take care of your body and your brain will most likely be there for you well into your senior years.