Don't Forget

By Tom Roebuck

May 15, 2009 5 min read


Memory loss is likely, but see through those senior moments

Tom Roebuck

Creators News Service

Getting older takes a toll on the body. The passage of time can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as hair turning gray -- or disappearing altogether. Crow's feet and laugh lines show up in the mirror and muscles and joints ache and creak like old floorboards.

But aging also can affect the mind, resulting in memory loss, perhaps the most mysterious and dreaded ailment associated with getting older.

Some people can live long lives and not show any signs of it. But typically, as more candles are added to the birthday cake, it is common for people to experience some form of memory loss. It's just a part of growing old.

"There are some individuals who will experience very little if any decline, or maybe not until very advanced ages," said Dr. Molly Wagster, chief of the neuropsychology of aging branch at the National Institute on Aging. "And there are others that are going to experience more and in different cognitive domains. Some people will have problems with their attention, some with their memory. In general, the majority of individuals will experience changes in their cognitive function with age, but there is great individual variability."

Since some people retain their full memory deep into old age and others lose it gradually, it can be difficult to determine the difference between simple forgetfulness and something more serious. There is no simple formula that states what level of memory loss is appropriate for a certain age level. But there are signals that should cause concern.

"For Alzheimer's disease you have to have loss in more than one cognitive domain before one starts considering the diagnosis as Alzheimer's. So if you're just very forgetful, but you're able to carry out other activities -- you're able to drive a car, you have spatial memory, you're able to make decisions, you can focus on the topic at hand, you can still learn new things -- that's not Alzheimer's," Wagster said.

Not as well known as Alzheimer's is mild cognitive impairment, a classification for those with an above-average loss for their age who haven't been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It's not as serious, but 12 to 15 percent of those diagnosed will develop Alzheimer's within a year. They also tend to be more aware that something is wrong and tell their doctor. Others will be unaware of their deteriorating condition, and it will be up to family and friends to make decisions for them.

"There are individuals who are moving into Alzheimer's disease who do not seem to have an awareness of the declines in their function," Wagster said. "Other individuals, on the other hand, do seem to have some awareness, at least early on. But over time, as the disease progresses, they lose that self-awareness."

Despite decades of research on the cause of Alzheimer's and memory loss, there is little that can be done for those who have already been afflicted.

"There are many who are starting to feel more and more that once Alzheimer's disease has been diagnosed, even if it's early-stage Alzheimer's, we have very little in our arsenal to help these individuals slow the progression of this disease, much less completely cure it or reverse it," Wagster said.

The origins of memory loss and Alzheimer's remain a mystery, but research indicates that physical and mental activity can help our minds stay sharp, along with a healthy, balanced diet. Food with high levels of antioxidants, such as fruits, vegetables, grain cereals and nuts, and omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish, are recommended. If we keep our bodies healthy, it can only help keep our minds healthy as well.

"In normal aging, physical activity particularly has shown great promise in maintaining, and quite frankly reversing some age-related decline," Wagster said. "Staying aerobically fit, engaging in physical activity, eating a healthy diet, trying to stay not only physically active but mentally active -- these are all things that are subject to research, and we have some pretty good data in animal models that they do help prevent, and in some cases even reverse, age-related cognitive decline."

Not all lapses in memory are causes for concern. If you've ever walked into a room only to forget why you walked in there in the first place, don't worry, according to Wagster.

"It's a good sign that there's still some awareness that there was a reason that you came into the room and hope that eventually you'll remember why it was that you came in there."

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