Do I Have Alzheimer’s, or Is It Just Normal Aging?

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Last week, I was listening to a song on the radio, and I couldn’t remember the name of the band playing it. It was a tune that came out when I was in high school, and I’d heard it hundreds of times since then. But as the song continued, I was still blanking on the band . . . and it really bothered me.

I shouldn’t be completely devastated that I couldn’t remember who performed the song, especially since it came to me just five minutes later. After all, I am in my early 50s, so I know my brain doesn’t work quite as quickly as it did in my 20s. Nevertheless, I’m noticing slightly more lapses in memory, and it gets harder to laugh them off as “senior moments.”

As we hustle through our busy lives, it’s not unusual to forget things. If you’re my age or older, you may notice the forgetfulness happening more often . . . and you might start to worry about it. However, for most people, memory loss is an inescapable part of aging, not necessarily a sign of something more worrisome. Only about 1% of adults over 65 get diagnosed with dementia each year.

Age-related Cognitive Decline

By the way, we should probably distinguish between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is an umbrella term (not a specific condition) that refers to the decrease in cognitive abilities, like recall, thinking, and reasoning that obstruct day-to-day life. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease that causes 60-80% of dementia cases.

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When do memory lapses or mistakes in thinking warrant a visit to the doctor? While a certain amount of cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, you might consider seeking medical attention if you

  • Forget things you just heard a few seconds ago.
  • Often ask the same question repeatedly.
  • Rely on sticky notes, flashcards, electronic reminders, or other people for tasks you used to handle on your own, like going to the grocery store or cooking your favorite recipe.
  • Forget where you park your car regularly, not just once in a while.
  • Consistently lose everyday items like keys, and you can’t trace back your steps to find them.
  • Lose track of seasons, dates, or the passage of time.
  • Often find yourself somewhere and don’t remember how you got there.
  • Struggle to remember names of familiar objects or people in your life.
  • Have difficulty with spatial reasoning, vision, or judging distances.
  • Have trouble participating in or following conversations.
  • Experience diminished judgment, causing you to make poor decisions, like neglecting daily hygiene.
  • Go through a general mood change, or become more suspicious, fearful, depressed, or anxious than before.
  • Withdraw from friends and family, hobbies, or social events that used to interest you, possibly because of some of the above changes.
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After going through the previous list, you might be wondering if any of those things apply to you. Maybe you’re freaking out a little. Well, remember that most forgetfulness instances are not a cause for concern; they’re just signs of the inescapable aging process. If it helps, compare that list with the one below to spot some things you might notice but shouldn’t worry about:

  • Forgetting a name or date but remembering it later on
  • Making a subtraction mistake when balancing your checkbook
  • Asking someone to help you use a new TV remote or setting on your smartphone
  • Forgetting what day of the week it is but figuring it out in the next minute
  • Noticing gradual changes in your vision, requiring stronger reading or prescription glasses
  • Having trouble thinking of the right word when explaining something
  • Once in a while misplacing things like your glasses or the remote control
  • Staying home instead of going out with your friends because you just need some “me” time
  • Experiencing a momentary mood change like irritability when hit with a setback or disruption in your everyday routine

Is There Anything I Can Do to Preserve My Cognitive Health?

If you’re still concerned about your memory or want to maintain your intellectual functioning, you can do several things to keep your mind sharp as you age.

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Exercise your brain. If you’re not much of a reader, you might want to start picking up a book, newspaper, or magazine. Working with puzzles is also good for your mind. Download free apps like Lumosity for puzzles that give your brain a workout. Take up a hobby or rekindle an interest that you’ve let go by the wayside. Keep learning.

Don’t overlook physical activity. Exercise gets your heart pumping and transports more blood to your brain. It also lowers your risk for high blood pressure, which has been linked to dementia.

Pay attention to what you eat. Here it comes . . . Keep eating your fresh veggies! Also, if you like tuna, salmon, or mackerel, then you’re in luck because they contain omega-3 fatty acids that decrease your risk of cognitive decline. Check your intake of saturated and trans fats.

Limit your alcohol intake and avoid smoking. Both decrease cognitive functioning. If you don’t want to give up that occasional drink, enjoy it in moderation.

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Declining cognitive performance could be related to aging, a sign of dementia, or indicative of something else. By asking you questions and giving you some tests, your physician will immediately know whether your memory issues are typical for your age. If you still feel like something is off but aren’t sure if there’s a problem, talk to your doctor to get to the bottom of it.

For more information, visit The Alzheimer’s Association website. You can also call them toll-free at 800-272-3900.

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