It's Just a Normal Part of Aging, Right?
You know the moment. I should say, the moments. They start to happen in our middle years and the frequency picks up as we age. Sometimes we chuckle at the moment. Occasionally the moments frustrate us. Almost always we, or someone with us, shares a joke about having a “senior moment.” These moments make us question our own aging journey. It’s just a normal part of aging, right? Do I have Alzheimer’s disease? Rest assured, our brains do change as we age so we can expect some “moments.” However, memory loss should not be an expectation as we age. There are ways to keep our brains healthy. Thus, it is important for us to recognize what is normal versus abnormal, for ourselves and our parents.
What's in a Name?
Remember the last time you had to introduce someone and you couldn’t remember their name? Happens to us all as we age. My husband covers this up by not making the introduction at all (insert applicable emoji here)! When I ask him about it later, he can always recall the name of the person. I recently ran into someone I no longer work with. I recalled his name when saying hello. Two hours later, I couldn’t remember his name when I passed his greeting onto others. I joked that recalling his name would likely wake me up at 2am (it was much earlier than that). The key here, is that while we may forget a name, we can always recall it later.
As we age, our brains begin to shrink. Volume (size) may decrease but capacity remains stable. Loss of volume occurs as neurons shrink. Less communication occurs between neurons. Blood flow is slowed. These changes lead to a less efficient brain. It takes longer for recall to happen. We notice this when we can’t easily remember names or find the words we want when speaking. Additionally, we may find it harder to easily and quickly complete our day to day tasks; those things we generally do without a second thought. Cognitive skills like strategizing, problem solving, and adapting to our surroundings may be slowed. The good news is that we still have the capacity (ability) to learn and remember new things.
Lost and Found
When anyone in our household asks if we know where a missing item is, one or more of us will respond with “it’s where you left it last!” While not particularly helpful it does give us all a chuckle. Who hasn’t entered a room to retrieve something only to forget what they wanted upon arrival. Ever try leaving the room, retracing your steps, only to discover you know exactly what you went in the room for in the first place? Occasionally misplacing items is normal. Finding the missing item in an unusual place, for example, your keys in the freezer, is not normal.
Being able to retrace your steps to find what you’re looking for is normal. Not being able to retrace those steps is abnormal.
The differentiator in determining what is normal versus abnormal is the effect upon our ability to function. Memory lapses which are easily overcome are normal. Gaps in memory that impact our day to day lives, social interactions, work, hobbies, and personal relationships are not normal. Such lapses should be evaluated as they may be indicative of dementia or another underlying disease process.
Sharp as a Tack
The saying, he or she is “sharp as a tack,” is often stated with surprise. However, research shows that despite the normal changes to our aging brain we can maintain healthy cognition well into our 80s. Cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses (Oxford Dictionary). As noted, cognition slows as we age. Medical conditions including heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes can affect cognition as we age. Other factors such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and smoking can affect cognition as well. Slower psychomotor speed, as seen in healthy older adults, can affect cognition. For example, an 85 year old may still be able to drive, recognizing traffic signs their meaning. However, he or she may not be able to react quickly enough in response to a yellow traffic light.
Staying sharp is possible. Maintaining brain heath is possible.
Aerobic exercise can improve cognition as it improves oxygenated blood flow to the brain. Staying active and participating in social events not only combats loneliness and isolation, it can help the elderly stay sharp. Additionally, pursing intellectual challenges can be stimulating with a positive effect on the aging brain. It’s never too late to learn something new. Take a class for enjoyment. Learn a new language. Travel to new places. Include your parents as much as possible. Brain “games” like puzzles, word searches, and board games are fun and interactive. “Working” the brain can be effective in boosting memory.
If you’re worried about your own memory lapses, compare yourself to others your age. Are your friends complaining about senior moments too? How do your senior moments compare to the ones your parent is having? Are you or your parent on medications that can impair cognition? If so, review them along with any other concerns with your (or their) doctor. Are you and your parents active? Physically and socially? If not, get moving and get out!
The Alzheimer’s Association provides an easy to use checklist, “Know the 10 Signs; Early Detection Matters” to help differentiate between normal aging and dementia. You can find it here. Finally, you can still chalk up a memory lapse to those annoying senior moments. You’ll remember what your momentarily forgot. It will wake you at 2am if not sooner. It’s just a normal part of aging, right?