Most old people I know ask themselves that headline question from time to time. It usually follows such instances as these:
In the middle of a sentence, you forget the name of the movie or book or author you're talking about.
Sometimes it's the name of an everyday item you forget. Not long ago, I perfectly well knew I wanted the word, “scissors,” but it wouldn't come to mind. I resorted to “that thing you cut paper with.”
Now and then I forget what I did yesterday. It happens often enough that I've begun joking that as far as I can tell nowadays, I go to bed on Sunday night and wake up Saturday morning.
These common incidents of forgetfulness are unlikely to be signs of serious disease. According to the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA),
”Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. As people get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As a result, some people may notice that it takes longer to learn new things, they don't remember information as well as they did, or they lose things like their glasses. These usually are signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems, like Alzheimer's disease.”
Here's a handy chart from the NIA on the differences between normal forgetfulness and Alzheimer's disease:
According to the NIA, there are both biological and psychological causes of non-dementia and non-Alzheimer's forgetfulness:
• Tumors, blood clots, or infections in the brain
• Some thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders
• Drinking too much alcohol
• Head injury, such as a concussion from a fall or accident
• Medication side effects
• Not eating enough healthy foods, or too few vitamins and minerals
”Emotional problems, such as stress, anxiety, or depression, can make a person more forgetful and can be mistaken for dementia. For instance, someone who has recently retired or who is coping with the death of a spouse, relative, or friend may feel sad, lonely, worried, or bored. Trying to deal with these life changes leaves some people feeling confused or forgetful.
“The confusion and forgetfulness caused by emotions usually are temporary and go away when the feelings fade.
The Mayo Clinic website has an easy-to-use report about dementia-or-not-dementia on a page titled, Memory Loss: When to Seek Help. Here is an encouraging list of possible causes of memory loss that are reversible:
• Minor head trauma or injury
• Emotional disorders. Stress, anxiety or depression
• Alcoholism. Chronic alcoholism can seriously impair mental abilities
• Vitamin B-12 deficiency
• Brain diseases. A tumor or infection in the brain
Not to mention plain-old old age which, if not reversible, does not disrupt one's life much. The Mayo Clinic discusses a condition known as mild cognitive impairment thusly:
”This involves a notable decline in at least one area of thinking skills, such as memory, that's greater than the changes of aging and less than those of dementia. Having mild cognitive impairment doesn't prevent you from performing everyday tasks and being socially engaged.
“Researchers and physicians are still learning about mild cognitive impairment. For many people, the condition eventually progresses to dementia due to Alzheimer's disease or another disorder causing dementia.
“Other people's memory loss doesn't progress much, and they don't develop the spectrum of symptoms associated with dementia.
As the Mayo piece notes, professionals “are still learning” not only about cognitive impairment but how the brain works in general so what is thought to be true today may not be tomorrow.
And what else I found out in researching this post is that just about everyone from health and medical reporters to doctors and researchers have a bias. They interpret the same information on a scale that runs from “don't worry about, it's normal” to “oh my god, see your doctor immediately.”
Okay, I'm overstating for effect, but as far as I can find it works that way a lot of the time.
That notwithstanding, personally I am relying on the conclusion of the bevy of physicians from five disciplines (!) who worked together on the solution to my internal bleed problem last spring.
When all of them showed up together in my hospital room late one afternoon, each trailed by two or three of his or her medical students, I asked for a clarification of a point because, I told them (and it's true), I get really stupid every day after about 3PM.
Each immediately replied with some version of “Oh, please, Ronni, you're sharp as a tack, you've got nothing to worry about.” I have decided to believe that until something untoward happens.
I've carefully monitored my mind for decades. I know the kinds of mistakes I make regularly and I know the ones – mostly memory – that have increased as the years pile up. Knowing these things helps keep them at bay or allows me to compensate for them to a degree I couldn't do otherwise.
For example, I can't recall even a list of just three items I want at the grocery store so I never rely on memory. I always make a list and these days I can do it on my phone via Alexa, adding items between shopping trips as they occur to me or I notice I'm out of olive oil.
I must have been in my 20s when I started making daily to-do lists at the end of the day. I never shut my computer without having made my tomorrow list.
Obligations to others such as in-person appointments but also via internet or telephone are always in red pen. I use yellow highlighter for things that have a close deadline or that I could but should not let go to another day. Most of the rest are reminders.
If there is something I absolutely must take with me when I leave the house, I put in front of the door where I will trip over it if I don't pick it up. I've learned that a sticky note on the door doesn't work, especially if it's been there for more than a day when it becomes just part of the woodwork.
A great help is that I have come to see my memory lapses as funny – at least when they are not annoying. I wrote this to give you a little information on the dementia/not dementia question but I also wonder how this stuff affects you and what you do about it.
Here is the latest episode of The Alex and Ronni Show recorded yesterday. If you would like to see Alex's entire two-hour show with other guests following our chat, you can do that at Facebook or Gabnet on Facebook or on YouTube.