Is it normal memory loss or dementia?

February 5, 2014

Our news this week — understanding age-related memory loss — is provided by Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

“As we get older, the processing speed of our brain slows down, so we can’t recall information as quickly as we used to,” explains Dr. Gad Marshall, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Memory lapses are unsettling, but they don’t necessarily herald impending dementia. The key is in how often these slips occur. You need to figure out the pattern. Is it happening several times a week or is it happening once or twice a month? Is it a change compared to five or ten years ago, and is it getting gradually worse?

Do you walk into a room only to forget what brought you there? Have you ever run into someone you know and his or her name slipped your mind? Do you often engage in a frantic search for misplaced car keys, glasses, or other everyday items?

Probably normal forgetfulness includes:

• You forget the name of a friend you have not seen in years.

• You can’t find your car keys

• You get lost while driving to a new doctor’s office.

• You forget to balance the check book one month.

• You forget what you ate for supper last night, but remember when someone gives a clue.

• You joke about your own forgetfulness to family and friends.

Consider talking to your doctor when:

• You struggle to remember the name of a family member.

• You have trouble remembering to drive,

• You get disoriented while driving to a familiar location, can’t figure where to go.

• You forget to pay the bills month after month.

• You forgot food you ate for dinner last night; and no reminders can jog your memory.

• A family member expresses concern about your memory loss.

Don’t be alarmed by everyday forgetfulness, says Marshall. The time to call your doctor is when you have more persistent or worsening memory loss that is interfering with your daily activities.

Slowing memory loss

You don’t have to watch your memory slip away. There are two things you can start doing right now to preserve mental function as you age: diet and exercise.

There have been studies that showed a benefit of the Mediterranean-style diet in slowing cognitive decline as you age, says Marshall. The diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, fish, and moderate amounts of red wine.

Studies show that vigorous exercise three or four times a week can prevent or slow the progression of cognitive decline. Staying active could help prevent or slow damage to the brain that leads to Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia. Exercise is thought to shield the brain from damage by improving blood flow, protecting the blood vessels that feed the brain and reduce stress hormone levels. It also doesn’t hurt to stay mentally and socially active.

Challenge your brain by tackling different or increasingly harder mental tasks. What will keep you cognitively strong is to learn new things and develop new neurocognitive pathways. Prevent loneliness and social isolation.

How to help remember

1. Get organized. Write to-do items in a calendar, notebook or smartphone. Create labeled containers in accessible locations for car keys, eyeglasses and other items regularly used. Place visual reminders, such as sticky notes, around your house to jog memory.

2. Repeat. If you are being introduced to someone and you really want to remember the person’s name, don’t just nod and smile. Say the person’s name. Paying attention to details — like the color of person’s hair or occupation — will also help to remember a name later.

3. Banish distractions. Try to do only thing at a time. Turn off TV, computer, phone that might distract you from the task at hand.

4. Break it up. It is easier to remember new information when you divide it into chunks. Try to remember only one section of a friend’s phone number at a time. Read just a few pages of a difficult book at once. Be sure you’ve learned the first piece of information before moving on to the next.

5. Record it. Carry a notebook or recorder with you to capture new information. The act of recording or writing down information helps cement it in your memory.

And there is no getting around the fact that the ability to remember does change with age. Many of these changes are normal and not a sign of dementia. Unfortunately, some people have the more serious memory problems associated with dementia.

If your memory is still healthy — even if you are forgetting a bit more than you’d like — now’s the time to commit to protecting your brain from ill consequences. Though the connection may not seem obvious at first, keeping the rest of your body healthy is critical way to preserve your memory.

Many medical conditions — from heart disease to depression — can affect your memory. Staying physically and mentally active turns out to be among the best prescriptions for maintaining a healthy brain and a resilient memory.