People in middle age and beyond often joke about "senior moments": forgetting where they put their keys, their eyeglasses, or the remote control. They shake their heads when they can't remember what they had for breakfast. They laugh when they walk into a room and then forget why they went there in the first place. The laughter turns to embarrassment as they greet family, friends or coworkers and can't remember their first names.
Family members politely smile and nod when aging relatives retell the same stories over and over again. At some point, the politeness turns to concern for their loved ones.
The question is, are these lapses isolated incidents or are they a sign of something more serious? Is aging and memory loss a given? How do you recognize the signs of memory loss, and what can you do to improve your brain function?
Loss of one's mental capacity is a frightening prospect. Dementia and Alzheimer's disease (also called senile dementia) rob us of our past, our personality, our essence, of who we are as individuals. So how do you know if you're at risk?
First of all, what's the difference between dementia and Alzheimer's disease? Dementia is a catch-all term for impaired cognitive ability and memory. Other causes of dementia are Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Four Types of Age-Related Memory Loss
According to The Terra Vista Foundation, an organization advancing the research, programming and events for adults and their families living with Alzheimer’s and other related dementias, there are four types of age-related memory loss:
- Short-term memory loss — This can be from a couple of seconds to a few days and is one of the first signs of Alzheimer's disease.
- Sensory memory loss — Considered the shortest term, it can last only 3 seconds. Relating to memory of sight, hearing and taste, it typically is not associated with Alzheimer's.
- Working memory loss — Closely linked to short-term memory, this also is an initial sign of Alzheimer's. It's what allows our brains to store limited bits of information long enough to use them.
- Long-term memory loss — Ranging from a few weeks to early memories, this usually is seen in later stages of Alzheimer's.
So Is It Forgetfulness or Memory Loss?
If you're like many people, you occasionally forget an appointment, details of a conversation or have "tip-of-the-tongue" moments with words. Don't worry. This kind of forgetfulness is caused by normal aging and should not be equated with significant memory loss.
However, if you struggle to remember things on a daily basis, it could actually be a sign of memory loss. If you have other symptoms — such as fatigue, depression or weight loss — these also could be warning signs. If you are experiencing these signs, we recommend seeing a doctor and speaking to them about aging and memory loss. Certain lifestyle choices, such as alcohol or drugs, also can adversely affect your memory.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) sometimes occurs between normal aging and dementia. If you frequently lose or misplace objects; regularly forget conversations or events; can't remember the names of people you’ve just met; or are over-reliant on reminders, you could be experiencing MCI.
If you struggle to remember recent events on a regular basis; can't follow conversations or TV shows; forget the names of everyday objects; often repeat yourself or lose your thoughts; or get lost or disorientated in familiar places, you could be suffering from dementia.
Age-Related Memory Loss Treatment Options
While there is no cure for Alzheimer's, medications and therapies may temporarily improve symptoms. Physical exercise is also recommended. In the case of dementia, however, some causes are reversible, according to the Mayo Clinic and other health experts. Consult a primary care physician, geriatric specialist, neurologist, psychiatrist and/or occupational therapist for a treatment plan.
How You Can Improve Your Memory
Research in conjunction with Harvard Medical School shows that diets high in saturated fat (from sources such as red meat, whole milk, butter, cheese, cream, and ice cream) increase your risk of dementia and impair concentration and memory. Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, contain antioxidants that protect your brain cells from damage.
Harvard Health recommends the following to help with aging and memory loss:
- Repeat what you hear out loud
- Make a to-do list
- Associate new information with old information
- Divide information into manageable chunks
Plus, participating in certain activities (beyond mind-bending puzzles) can help ward off age-related cognitive decline:
- Care for grandchildren or a dog
- Get more sleep at night (easier said than done) and treat sleep apnea
- Stay busy
- Include omega-3 fats (fish) in your diet
- Read books
- Take a walk
- Use hearing aids
- Keep your gums healthy
- Keep your heart healthy
- Try tai chi
- Control your diabetes
- Listen to music
- Learn a second language
- Dance — it improves brain function on a variety of levels
- Minimize stress
- Control depression
- Take continuing education classes
Interested in incorporating some of these activities into your daily routine but unsure where or how to start? Acts assisted living services can help residents and non-residents become more mentally and physically active. Unique social opportunities and activities help to fight depression, mentally stimulate participants, and provide personalized experiences. Fight memory loss by continuing to embrace life, socialize, and make memories for years to come.