Studies have shown that active social lives and physical activity slow the rate of memory decline in the elderly by more than half. With the current state of the world, it is more difficult than ever to make sure those two things are happening for the seniors in our lives. Depending on their health, leaving the house recreationally may not be an option mid-pandemic, and that seclusion can be tough on memory. So, what’s just normal aging and when do you start getting concerned?
Occasionally forgetting a person’s name, where you put down your glasses or keys, or even some of the items on your to-do list for the day isn’t typically cause for concern. Mayo Clinic describes indicators that are cause for concern as memory loss that interrupts day-to-day life or quality of life. These symptoms can indicate the beginnings of “dementia”, which despite confusion and some misusage, is a term that describes all problematic symptoms of aging, such as issues with memory, judgment, language, and other cognitive abilities. Its most well-known form is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are other forms such as vascular and frontotemporal.
Early signs of dementia can include repeatedly asking the same questions, forgetting common words or mixing words up, taking longer to complete or forgetting how to do simple tasks (such as taking out the trash), misplacing items in strange places (like placing keys in the refrigerator), getting lost in familiar places, or sudden mood swings without explanation.
As memory issues and other cognitive symptoms graduate from “normal” to concerning, physicians are now referring to this as “mild cognitive impairment”, or MCI. This describes the condition for a noticeable decline in function, but one that has not yet caused issues in daily living. In some cases, medications, minor head injuries, depression, stress, anxiety, alcoholism, vitamin B-12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, and other brain diseases can cause MCI and can be reversible. Unfortunately, however, while there are some resolvable issues that can cause MCI, it is most often a precursor to a form of dementia.
This can all be really scary, but the most important thing to remember is that memory loss is manageable, and treatment has come a long way. The first thing to do is to see a doctor and provide examples of what you or your loved one is experiencing. A physician can help decipher if the symptoms are cause for concern and what best actions to take. If symptoms are relatively mild, there are many beneficial things you can do. First, increase the amount of interaction you have with your loved one. Visiting may not be Covid-appropriate, but more frequent phone calls, or maybe even face-timing via devices like the echo show or a smartphone to help increase the social component. Encourage daily brain games or puzzles, such as crosswords, Sudoku, or codewords, as well as daily exercise of some sort – perhaps simple stretches or walking in place. Check-in about diet – maybe consult a nutritionist or make small changes such as reducing sweets or alcohol. Encouraging learning new skills can also be beneficial, such as learning a new language or instrument.
If symptoms are more severe than you thought, the important thing is to know that while it’s not an easy road, you’re not alone. There are more services, programs, and support available for individuals with memory loss than ever before. Consulting with experts in senior care can be a great second step after meeting
with a physician.