Sometimes we worry too much about forgetfulness

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April 24, 2013
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Sometimes we worry too much about forgetfulness

One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.—Rita Mae Brown, American author and screenwriter

I have just spent approximately four weeks with BFFs – my college roommate and her sister who visited us here, and my two “sister-cousins” I visited in Arkansas.  I enjoyed those visits so much, and told Toby, “It is incredibly wonderful to play with kids my own age!”

Remember when our children were small?   We would start to worry about them a bit, maybe their behavior or something, and then we would take them to a birthday party of kids their own age.  With relief, we would think “Oh.  That’s the way five-year olds act!”  I found my friends looking for their cell phones and their car keys, forgetting what they were about to say, and struggling to call up someone’s name.  Between the three of us, we would giggle and eventually call up the missing item.  If we didn’t, it didn’t make any difference.  A nice relief from adult children (who really are wonderful) admonishing “MOTHER – I told you that already!”

Are my friends and I headed toward Alzheimer Disease or some other ghastly dementia?  I am happy to refer us to the “Age Page” about cognitive decline from NIH.

Sometimes we worry about becoming forgetful.  We tend to think forgetfulness may be the first sign of dementia.  Over the past few years, scientists have learned a lot about memory and why some kinds of memory problems are serious, but others are not.

Forgetfulness, says the AgePage, can be a normal part of aging. As people get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As a result, some people may notice that it takes longer to learn new things, they don’t remember information as well as they did, or they lose things like their glasses. These usually are signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.

Some older adults also find that they don’t do as well as younger people on complex memory or learning tests. Scientists have found, though, that given enough time, healthy older people can do as well as younger people do on these tests. In fact, as they age, healthy adults usually improve in areas of mental ability such as vocabulary.

Furthermore, some memory problems are related to health issues that may be treatable.  For example, medication side affects, vitamin B-12 deficiency, chronic alcoholism tumors or infections in the brain.  Blood clots in the brain can cause memory loss or possibly dementia.  Some thyroid, kidney or liver disorders can lead to memory loss.  A Doctor should treat serious medical conditions like these as soon as possible.  Emotional problems such as stress, anxiety or depression can make a person more forgetful and can be mistaken for dementia.  For instance, someone who has recently retired or who is coping with the death of a spouse, relative or friend may feel sad, lonely, worried or bored.  Trying to deal with these huge life changes leaves some individuals confused or forgetful. 

The confusion and forgetfulness caused by emotions usually are temporary and go away when the feelings fade a bit.  These emotional challenges can be eased by supportive friends and family.  However, if these feelings last for a long time, it is important to get help from a doctor or counselor.  Treatment may include counseling, medication, or both.

For some people, memory problems are a sign of a serious problem, such as mild cognitive impairment or dementia. People who are worried about memory problems should see a doctor. The doctor might conduct or order a thorough physical and mental health evaluation to reach a diagnosis. Often, these evaluations are conducted by a neurologist, a physician who specializes in problems related to the brain and central nervous system.

A complete medical exam for memory loss should review the person’s medical history, including the use of prescription and over-the-counter medicines, diet, past medical problems, and general health. A correct diagnosis depends on accurate details, so in addition to talking with the patient, the doctor might ask a family member, caregiver, or close friend for information.

People with some forgetfulness can use a variety of techniques that may help them stay healthy and maintain their memory and mental skills.  Here are some tips that may help:  1) Plan tasks and make “to do” lists.  Use memory aids like notes and calendars.  Some people find they remember things better if they mentally connect them to other meaningful things, such as a familiar name, song, book or TV show.  2) Develop interests or hobbies and stay involved in activities that can help both the mind and body.  3) Engage in physical activity and exercise.  Several studies have associated exercise (such as walking) with better brain function, 4) Limit alcohol use.  Heavy or binge drinking over time can cause memory loss and permanent brain damage.

Learn more about cognitive decline at (click “c” in topic index) and (search for “memory loss.”)

Thank you for reading.  Stay well.  See you next week.

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