A concern that is commonly voiced by adult children is that their aging parent is beginning to get forgetful. Maybe they are losing their keys more frequently. Perhaps they uncharacteristically failed to pay some bills on time. Such changes can seem especially pronounced for those who only see their parents occasionally (such as around the holiday season that is fast-approaching).
As we age, it is normal to become a bit more forgetful than we were in our youth—after all, our brains age just like other parts of the body. This age-related memory loss is attributable to three main factors; as we age:
- The hippocampus region of the brain, which is integral to the creation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates.
- There is a decrease in the levels of hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth.
- Blood flow to the brain decreases, which can impair memory and cognitive skills.
When people start noticing memory problems in themselves or a loved one, many immediately worry that they have the early stages of dementia or, more specifically, Alzheimer’s disease. The most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that causes a steady decline in memory, thinking, and reasoning abilities. It impacts one in 10 people over the age of 65, and one in three over age 85. So, while these conditions are more common as we age, and memory-related symptoms should not be ignored, statistically speaking, most people will not be diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. The majority of memory issues are the result of the normal aging process.
Know the risk factors & warning signs
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are three key risk factors that increase a person’s odds of being diagnosed with this condition:
- Age (the greatest of the three risk factors)
- Family history (one or more first-degree relatives who have the condition)
- Genetics (inheriting the APOE-e4 gene from one or both parents)
If you are worried about your memory or that of an aging loved one, here are 10 early warning signs that the Alzheimer’s Association suggests looking for:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life, especially forgetting recently learned information
- Challenges in planning or problem-solving
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images or spatial relationships
- New problems with written or spoken words (such as calling things by the wrong name)
- Misplacing items and losing the ability to retrace steps to find them
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work, hobbies, or social activities
- Changes to mood and personality
Lower your odds
You can help decrease your chances of experiencing cognitive decline or dementia as you age by taking these healthy steps:
- Exercise regularly, including both cardio and strength-training.
- Eat a healthy diet, especially antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and foods high in omega-3 fats (such as salmon, tuna, trout, walnuts, and flaxseed).
- Don’t smoke.
- Manage stress.
- Remain active and social.
- Read, play strategy games, and continue to learn new things.
- Get enough sleep.
What to do if you’re concerned
While memory issues should not be ignored, especially if you notice a dramatic change in yourself or an aging loved one, statistically speaking, the odds are that your memory problem is not Alzheimer’s disease. Other conditions such as a vitamin deficiency, thyroid problem, or medication side effects may be to blame, or it could be a result of the normal aging process.
But, if you are concerned that you or a loved one may have the early signs of dementia, the best thing to do is schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. They will discuss your concerns with you and may even be able to do some initial testing to determine if further screening is needed.
While there is not yet a cure, early diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s helps patients get the most benefit from available treatments, which can help ease symptoms. There are also numerous clinical trials underway, which you may be able to participate in.
As the U.S. population grows older, more resources are becoming available to those who are experiencing cognitive decline or dementia. In-home services and assistive technologies can help people stay independent longer. And if eventually needed, more and more senior living communities are offering specialized memory care services in a warm, home-like setting—a far cry from the institutional-style “wards” of the past.
Memory care solutions
Memory care communities offer specialized long-term care and housing to seniors with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive conditions. These communities are properly equipped to manage safety concerns and symptoms like aggression, confusion, or wandering, and they are staffed by specially trained caregivers who assist residents with self-care and communication.
Memory care facilities can be free-standing and independently operated, but most are special units contained within a nursing home, assisted living facility, or a continuing care retirement community (CCRC, also called a life plan community). Either way, they provide their residents with the safety and highly specialized care that is needed by people with dementia or other cognitive conditions.