Learn About Normal Memory Changes for World Alzheimer’s Month
September is World Alzheimer’s Month. This campaign by Alzheimer’s Disease International raises awareness and challenges the stigma that persists around Alzheimer’s disease and all types of dementia.
What’s normal, what’s not?
It’s important to know that dementia is not part of the normal aging process, but memory changes are. Despite our concern, many memory and thinking changes are considered normal, caused by typical age-related changes in the brain. Certain areas of the brain become smaller, and the connection between neurons weakens. Blood flow in the brain may decrease.
We can save ourselves a lot of worry by learning about these normal changes and what to expect. Even by late middle age, most of us will experience milder versions of the warning signs above—those so-called “senior moments.” But these aren’t necessarily due to deterioration of the brain! Senior brains are just different.
For one thing, over the years we’ve accumulated a lot of memories and information. So, like a computer’s hard drive, it takes our brains longer to sort through all the “data.” And memories might come to us down different paths; if we can’t recall the name of a song on the radio from the tune, eventually our brain is likely to fetch it through an association—such as with where we lived when it was popular. Chances are if you’re an older adult, you do better on multiple choice tests than fill in the blanks!
Older brains are also pickier when it comes to retaining memories. When we’re young, we tend to remember a lot of different things, whether or not those things might be important. Older brains are more “discerning”—they make decisions about what memories to retain. Of course, sometimes they choose wrong; if you can’t find your reading glasses, your brain may have neglected to recall that they’re on your head.
Here are some other memory changes that are considered to be perfectly normal:
- Taking more time to learn a new task
- “Tip of the tongue” memory lapses—you can’t quite remember a name or word, but it comes to you later
- Briefly forgetting why you came in the room
- Less ability to multitask
- Mild decrease in attention and focus
We can make up for these memory changes with memory tricks, writing notes or keeping a calendar, and putting things in the same place every time (for example, the TV remote or the car keys). We can make a mental note—which signals our brain that we want to remember something, such as where we parked the car.
If we live long enough, we’ll notice changes in our memory and thinking. Or maybe our spouse or other family member will be the ones to point out these changes. In any case, it’s important to be aware of changes that might mean something is amiss, and which should be reported to the doctor, such as:
- Asking the same question over and over
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Inability to follow instructions
- Confusion about time, people and places
- Misplacing things often
- Personality changes
- New inability to do things, such as pay bills
Don’t ignore these changes or just hope they will go away. Sometimes the problem is treatable, such as medication side effects, depression, an infection, or even a vitamin deficiency. Sometimes the diagnosis is “mild cognitive impairment”—memory and thinking problems that might progress to Alzheimer’s disease, but not necessarily. If the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, early diagnosis allows for the best treatment and planning for care.
Sources: IlluminAge AgeWise with information from the National Institute on Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease International.