I am at the age when people begin to worry about the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It does not help that this topic keeps surfacing in conversations among age-peers in one’s family and friends and acquaintances, thus keeping it at the forefront of one’s mind. But it is easy for people who are not clinicians trained in the symptoms of these diseases to become unduly alarmed over things that are merely the effects of normal aging and not signs of serious cognitive decline. Misplacing items, being unable to recall the name of an object or an actor in a TV show or film, forgetting why one went into a room, are among the things that cause unwarranted uneasiness.
This article tries to dispel some of those concerns, by distinguishing between normal aging-associated memory loss and mild cognitive impairment. Every year about 10-15% of people with mild cognitive impairment will develop dementia.
[I]t’s true that like the rest of our body, our brain cells shrink when we get older. They also maintain fewer connections with other neurons and store less of the chemicals needed for sending messages to other neurons.
But not all memory lapses are due to age-related changes to our neurons. In many cases, the influencing factors are more trivial, including being tired, anxious, or distracted.
Our memory system is constructed in a way that some degree of forgetting is normal. This is not a flaw, but a feature. Maintaining memories is not only a drain on our metabolism, but too much unnecessary information can slow down or hamper retrieving specific memories.
Unfortunately, it’s not always up to us to decide what’s important and should be remembered. Our brain does that for us. In general, our brain prefers social information (the latest gossip), but easily discards abstract information (such as numbers).
Memory loss becomes a problem when it starts to affect your typical day-to-day living. It’s not a huge issue if you can’t remember to turn right or left. However, forgetting why you are behind the wheel, where you are meant to be going or even how to drive are not normal. These are signs something may not be right and should be investigated further.
While everyday memory lapses are not something we should unduly worry about, it is prudent to seek professional health care advice, such as from your GP, when those impairments become more marked and consistent.
While there is no cure for dementia, there are suggestions that keeping active both physically and mentally can help to stave off its arrival.