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Is my ‘senior moment’ the start of dementia?

By The Health News Team | October 14, 2020
Concerned woman looking at her phone

If you’re standing at the gas pump, struggling to remember your ZIP code, don’t panic. Chances are, you’re not on the road to dementia. Forgetting names, numbers or the omelet you had for breakfast yesterday is likely a result of stress.

“I often see patients who are concerned about memory loss,” says Dr. Daniel Hoefer, a family medicine and palliative care doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “In most cases, if they’re asking if it’s dementia, it probably isn’t. Yet, if it’s an adult child, asking about their aging parent, it probably is.”

Like any organ, the brain slows down as we age. Now that people are living longer and longer, we will continue to see cognitive issues impact older communities. However, signs of true dementia are much more jarring than forgetting a phone number. Depending on the cause, everyday memory loss can often be remedied with simple lifestyle changes.

Understanding and managing everyday memory loss

Episodes of forgetfulness can strike at any age — with the most common causes being stress or depression.

“Stress can take a toll on our minds,” says Dr. Hoefer. “It distracts us, and triggers momentary memory problems. Depression can also affect our memory, disconnecting us with our surroundings and dulling our concentration and awareness.”

Some ways to help manage stress and depression, to keep our minds sharp, include:

For older adults, preserving memory function becomes more and more important as the years pass. According to Dr. Hoefer, many retirees see a decline in memory simply because they spend more time at home, disengaging with social interactions that are vital to cognitive health.

“It’s artificial that we tell people to retire at 65,” he says. “Retire from your job, yes, but don’t turn your brain off. Have a purpose when you wake up. I know it’s a trend for seniors to do crossword puzzles or play word games to stay ‘sharp,’ but really it’s the interaction that matters. So read books, but then discuss those books with friends or an organized book club.”

Medication and memory loss

Medications as a memory impairment is a topic Dr. Hoefer wishes more of his patients would pay close attention to. “Many people don’t realize how some medications can affect the brain. The worst part is that once the brain is impacted by medications, or medication combinations, there is no reversal.”

Dr. Hoefer points out that any meds with psychoactive properties can be a problem, causing permanent cognitive damage if taken long enough. Some of these include antihistamines, gastrointestinal antispasmodics, muscle relaxers, antidepressants, antipsychotics and bladder incontinence medications.

The solution is for patients to take a very active role in their medical treatment plans. Dr. Hoefer suggests discussing the impact of recommended medications with their doctor and always asking the question, how will this affect my brain?

“Obviously, medications are important when treating certain conditions. But there needs to be a balance. A patient may need a heart drug for proper heart function, but perhaps that means forgoing certain surgeries that require anesthesia. If you’re 85 and already have memory issues, weighing the risks and benefits of treatments should always include impact on the brain.”

Identifying dementia

When memory issues go beyond everyday forgetfulness, and begin to affect a person’s quality of life, dementia could be a possible diagnosis.

“Mild cognitive impairment is normal, but if memory problems are interfering with a patient’s ability to act appropriately, it’s time to get evaluated by a primary care physician,” Dr. Hoefer says. Some ways to identify early onset dementia include:

  • Forgetting to pay bills

  • Failing to eat or cook properly

  • Trouble carrying on a conversation

  • Getting lost while traveling to familiar places

  • Experiencing mood or behavior changes for no reason

  • Taking longer to complete familiar tasks

  • Repeating the same questions or sentiments multiple times

Focusing on brain health is just as important as taking care of your body. In the same way that you exercise to stay fit or eat salmon to help your heart, don’t forget to mind your mind. “I see too many seniors who worry about losing their autonomy,” Dr. Hoefer says. “Live a life that protects your brain, because the more you do when you’re younger, the better you’ll do when you’re 90.”

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