It’s not just love handles and unwanted wrinkles we have to worry about as we age.
Everything about the human body seems to metamorphose in an unfortunate way as we get older, and mental function is no exception. Older people learn more slowly and process new information less carefully than their younger counterparts, according to experts at Harvard Medical School, and memory loss and minor confusion is normal. However, the human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself, and it can grow new neurons into old age.
In contrast, a group of brain disorders known as dementia and its most common cause -- Alzheimer’s disease -- is much more serious. Individuals with Alzheimer’s don’t just have trouble remembering things; this degenerative brain disease is characterized by continual loss of nerve cells in areas of the brain crucial to memory and other mental functions. As it advances through the brain, Alzheimer’s leads to increasingly severe symptoms including disorientation, mood changes, deepening confusion, unfounded suspicions about friends and caregivers, and difficulty speaking and swallowing.
Women appear to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease at a higher rate than men, and one in 10 people over age 65, and nearly half of those over age 85, may have the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and is, sadly, incurable.
Age-related memory loss vs. Alzheimer’s
For doctors and caregivers alike, it can be challenging to tell whether normal age-related changes in memory and cognition are actually signaling a transition to early Alzheimer’s disease, since the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s involve memory. Certain thyroid conditions and dietary deficiencies can be underlying causes of memory loss, so rule those out first with your health-care provider, says board-certified neurologist David Perlmutter, M.D., founder of the Perlmutter Brain Foundation in Naples, Florida.
Certain types of brain trauma, psychological conditions, and drug and alcohol abuse can also cause significant memory loss, he adds.
Since memory loss is so common with age, the Alzheimer’s Association has developed tools like the lists below to help loved ones and caregivers distinguish the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease from typical age-related changes.
Minor memory lapses normally associated with aging:
- Getting lost while driving or walking in a familiar place
- Misplacing everyday items, such as keys, lipstick, phone, etc.
- Having trouble remembering details about a TV show or a friend’s birthday.
Typical changes of age-related memory loss:
- Occasionally making bad decisions
- Missing monthly payments on bills
- Suddenly forgetting which day of the week it is
- Forgetting the use of common words
- Losing things from time to time.
Possible changes due to Alzheimer’s:
- Consistently poor judgment and decision-making capability
- Inability to balance a checkbook or manage a budget
- Losing track of a day, a month or even the season
- Challenges in problem-solving abilities and spatial considerations
- Missing things but unable to trace steps to find them.
Take the next steps
Don’t put off checking in with a health care provider to help you figure things out. An early diagnosis of Alzheimer's allows you to participate in more decisions about your own care, finances and legal matters. You can also help build the right medical team and support network from the ground up.
If you’re caring for someone who has dementia from Alzheimer’s disease, a trial of a cholinesterase inhibitor may be part of the conversation with your doctor. These drugs can yield small improvements in cognition and activities of daily living, but not all patients benefit.
If you’ve been diagnosed with age-related symptoms of memory loss, add several brain-boosting exercises into your daily life, such as doing complex puzzles, learning a new language, playing board games and/or a musical instrument. “These activities can also be rewarding to do with caregivers and the whole family,” says Perlmutter, co-author of The Better Brain Book (Riverhead Trade). Regular mental stimulation improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline much like physical exercise.
Exercise itself helps, too, due to an increase in blood flow to the brain, according to studies from the National Academy of Sciences. Many experts suspect that physical movement also stimulates growth of new cells in the memory-related areas of the brain and protects against cognitive decline.
In other words, use it or lose it.