They say you should write about what you know—and I know that as I age, a lot of my friends are beginning to worry that they have Alzheimer’s disease.
A few of my friends have talked to their doctor about their fears, or taken a test. Two friends have been diagnosed; they are being treated and so far have not lost control of their lives.
I can relate. I’ve given up on remembering names, constantly make lists, forget the word I’m looking for in the middle of a sentence, and occasionally can’t find things that I always keep in the same place. Memory lapses can be both aggravating and frustrating—but they may only be due to the overwhelming amount of information that is being taken in by an aging brain, and not a brain disease.
Some people I know assume the inevitable because of a family history: a grandparent, father, mother or siblings who developed some form of dementia. However, researchers claim that you are at a greater incremental risk only if both a mother and father had dementia. Between 6 and 13 percent of the general public will develop Alzheimer’s after age 65. Of 111 families studied, in 22.6 percent of people with both a mother and father affected, Alzheimer’s developed—a greater risk to be sure, but still not an overwhelming statistic.
Pharmaceutical companies have taken advantage of our fears by advertising drugs that supposedly slow the progression of dementia or even prevent symptoms. Studies and research are always dumping new data to either frighten or reassure us.
Because I’ve been involved in the local attempt to de-stigmatize dementia, including almost three years of sponsoring the Dementia-Friendly Café (about which I’ve written several times), and because I worry about my own memory lapses, I decided to look into the difference between age-related memory impairment (AMI) and dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is merely one of more than 40 types.
Perhaps the most important takeaway is that while Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia becomes more common with age, it is not a normal part of aging.
My mother used to call me, frantic that she could not find her keys. “Mom,” I would flippantly answer, “it’s not when you can’t find your keys that we worry; it’s when you don’t know what keys do.” It turns out I was right!
As we age, our ability to process information, either incoming or outgoing, slows down. Normal AMI means you have a harder time recalling new pieces of information, such as the name of a person you only recently met. I liken it to a kitchen sponge which, when soaked through with water, cannot hold any more: For more to go in, something has to dribble out.
The good news is that AMI is not generally progressive. Many of us are actually better able to do memory-related tasks as we age, like crossword puzzles, than younger people, whose brains can be overloaded with newly learned information. We often find the younger generation has trouble focusing on a single task because they are so accustomed to constant multi-stimulation.
Here are some AMI issues that do not indicate the onset of dementia:
• Occasionally forgetting names or appointments. I have to look at my calendar every day to know what I’m doing; if I write it down, I don’t need to remember it!
• Needing help setting the microwave, working the cable remote or, in my case, using the computer. This is where having grandchildren can be a blessing.
• Forgetting what day it is, but remembering it later. I use my pill dispenser to remind me what day it is when I get up each morning.
• Having trouble finding the right word in the middle of a sentence. This is particularly upsetting when I’m doing my radio show, but I generally come up with a substitute word or find a way to describe what I mean.
• Misplacing something but being able to retrace your steps to try to find it. I must admit I spend a considerable amount of time retracing steps, but at least I remember where to look.
• Developing a routine and being upset when that routine is disturbed. I have a good friend who has lunch every day, in the same diner, at the same table. I think he even orders the same thing every day. He does get upset when his routine is interrupted. He does not have dementia.
Dementia-related memory issues don’t just upset your day; they disrupt your life: Suddenly realizing you don’t know where you are or how you got there; not remembering whether you’ve eaten; forgetting to put shoes on before going outside; requiring others to handle things you’ve always done for yourself, like making appointments or paying bills; having to ask for the same information over and over and over again; not knowing how to play a favorite game; not recognizing family or close friends; being unable to follow or join in a conversation.
The Alzheimer Society of Canada suggests a telling indication that you are experiencing AMI is when you’re worried about your memory, but those close to you are not—as compared to when your family expresses concern, and you’re oblivious to any problem.
If you’re concerned, talk to your family doctor, and then find a doctor who specializes in testing and diagnosis. People in their 40s can develop early-onset dementia, while people in their 90s may be sharp as a tack.
Meanwhile, I’ve developed some coping mechanisms that might be helpful:
• When you get up to do something, say it out loud so you have a chance of remembering why you got up when you get where you were going. Seriously, this works!
• Write things down as you think of them. Don’t expect to remember something that just flitted through your mind.
• Repeat information to make it easier to remember: “Let me make sure I heard you.”
• Always put things in the same spot. For me, it’s the small dish into which I toss my keys when I step inside my front door.
• Get enough sleep. A tired old brain is nowhere near as useful as a rested one.
• Finally, don’t be afraid to talk about this with your loved ones, your doctor, or your friends—but don’t obsess. Let those close to you know that you are experiencing normal AMI issues, and encourage them to let you know if they get concerned it’s more than that.
Then let it go—and get on with your life.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.