Agewise: Aging and Memory: What’s to be expected as we age?

Ellen Phipps

Each day at the Alzheimer’s Association, we answer the phones to a concerned and worried public.  “I’m worried about my memory.”   “I think my Dad has Alzheimer’s”.  “What should I do about my sister?”  “My mother’s confusion is just normal aging, right?”

With so many stories on the news and internet, it can be daunting trying to get accurate information.

Have you ever lost your keys?  Or, parked your car at the mall and been unable to find it?  Is this a sign of Alzheimer’s disease?  What is dementia, anyway?

Losing our keys or not finding our car at the mall does not mean we have Alzheimer’s disease.  Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative brain disorder that occurs gradually and affects memory, thinking, judgement, and behavior.

Memory loss and confusion are not part of normal aging.  As we get older, we may slow down a bit, and perhaps lose the ability to multi-task the way we use to.  But, some things improved as we age – such as wisdom, and vocabulary, for example. There can be many reasons for memory loss and confusion though. And, some things are treatable.  For example, sometimes depression can mimic memory loss and cause confusion; treating the depression may eliminate symptoms.

But, memory loss that disrupts daily life may also be a symptom of Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that causes a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. There are 10 warning signs and symptoms. Every individual may experience one or more of these signs in a different degree. If you notice any of them, please see a doctor and discover the cause of the problem.

1. MEMORY LOSS THAT DISRUPTS DAILY LIFE  One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s is memory loss, especially forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events; asking for the same information over and over; increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (e.g., reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own.

2. CHALLENGES IN PLANNING OR SOLVING PROBLEMS – Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. They may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before.

3. DIFFICULTY COMPLETING FAMILIAR TASKS AT HOME, AT WORK OR AT LEISURE People with Alzheimer’s often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Sometimes, people may have trouble driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work or remembering the rules of a favorite game.

4. CONFUSION WITH TIME OR PLACE People with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time. They may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately. Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there.

5. TROUBLE UNDERSTANDING VISUAL IMAGES AND SPATIAL RELATIONSHIPS For some people, having vision problems is a sign of Alzheimer’s. They may have difficulty reading, judging distance and determining color or contrast, which may cause problems with driving.

6. NEW PROBLEMS WITH WORDS IN SPEAKING OR WRITING People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue or they may repeat themselves. They may struggle with vocabulary, have problems finding the right word or call things by the wrong name (e.g., calling a “watch” a “hand-clock”).

7. MISPLACING THINGS AND LOSING THE ABILITY TO RETRACE STEPS A person with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. Sometimes, they may accuse others of stealing. This may occur more frequently over time.

8. DECREASED OR POOR JUDGMENT People with Alzheimer’s may experience changes in judgment or decision-making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, giving large amounts to telemarketers. They may pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean.

9. WITHDRAWAL FROM WORK OR SOCIAL ACTIVITIES A person with Alzheimer’s may start to remove themselves from hobbies, social activities, work projects or sports. They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite sports team or remembering how to complete a favorite hobby. They may also avoid being social because of the changes they have experienced.

10.CHANGES IN MOOD AND PERSONALITY The mood and personalities of people with Alzheimer’s can change. They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious. They may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in places where they are out of their comfort zone.

If you notice any of the 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s in yourself or someone you know, don’t ignore them. Schedule an appointment with your doctor.  The doctor’s visit will likely include a thorough physical & medical history; blood work; a neurological exam; a good history from the person and the family of the ‘problem’; a complete medication review; a CAT scan or MRI or PET scan; neuropsychological testing – screening for cognitive changes; follow-up and counseling or at least a referral.

The Alzheimer’s Association is here to help. You are not alone. Our 24-hour HelpLine is staffed with social workers at 1-800-272-3900 or, visit us at www.alz.org

Ellen Phipps, CTRS; MSG, Gerontologist; VP Programs & Public Policy, Alzheimer’s Association, Central & Western VA Chapter