You forgot to send your daughter-in-law a card for her birthday last week. You can never remember where you left the car keys. You’re watching the rerun of a TV show you know you saw before but you can’t remember who did the murder. Someone in your book group mentions a book you all read three months ago and you’re drawing a blank on the title.
We all go through this and much, perhaps most, of it is perfectly normal. We laugh and call them “senior moments,” acknowledging that an aging brain brings its vexations. Yes, it can be very annoying to not have the right information pop up just when we need it, even though it is part of human nature – at all ages – to forget things from time to time. But for many of us, perhaps too many of us, our forgetfulness has become seriously worrisome. Is it the first sign of real dementia?
Should we be worried?
Unfortunately, there is no strict dividing line here. What is “normal” for each of us changes over time as we age and these changes are different for everyone. It’s not at all difficult to find information about how to tell how serious our forgetfulness is, but the articles don’t necessarily agree on what all the signs are and especially, what, if anything, can be done about it.
There is one area of general agreement, however. This has to do with whether forgetfulness is beginning to interfere with living everyday life. For example, do you find yourself compensating by asking someone else to balance your checkbook or by eating out more because you’re not cooking as much? Have you stopped having the radio on while you’re driving because you find it too distracting? Are you not reading as much or perhaps giving up other activities you have always taken pleasure in? Do you see yourself as quick to go on the defensive if someone around you points out something you’ve forgotten? Again, no single one of these is necessarily cause for concern, but if they’re starting to pile up, it may be time to get help.
The good news is that this may all be from something physical (that may not sound at first like good news, but physical things are often easier to treat). A new medication, for example, or too little sleep on a regular basis could well be the cause of increasing forgetfulness. It could be an underactive thyroid, a condition usually very easy to manage. My mother-in-law saw a huge improvement in her memory functions once she got a pacemaker – she just wasn’t getting enough blood to her brain. If you have gotten to the point where you are really worried about forgetfulness, start by seeing your regular doctor.
More good news is that we can develop some routines that reinforce our sense of remembrance on a regular basis. Often referred to as “brain games,” the general consensus in the scientific community is that while these activities may not reverse memory loss, they can keep a healthy brain healthy. This can be very reassuring. I love crossword puzzles and Bill is a big fan of the daily Jumble and word search puzzles. A tip from a good friend that I have incorporated into my life: If I wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble falling back to sleep, I will often try to remember the names of all 50 states in alphabetical order. I rarely get past the N’s (there are eight of them) before I fall asleep again, but it’s very reassuring to get even that far.
It’s also good to know that even forgetfulness that has reached an “abnormal” level isn’t necessarily something dramatic like Alzheimer’s. It may be a mild form of impairment that can be coped with and managed. Keeping a memory book handy, for example, is one of the common recommendations from the professionals.
The worried well
As part of the largest generation in American history, we baby boomers have always commanded a lot of attention. As we age, our problems also get attention, perhaps more than they deserve. Many, many people our age are worrying about their memories with needing to – some doctors even have a term for it: the “worried well.” We need to recognize that what we are experiencing when we run into someone on the street and can’t remember her name may just be a part of the normal aging process.
An article I found especially helpful about normal memory loss is: “Worried About Your Memory? 5 Signs It's Not Serious” at https://www.caring.com/articles/normal-memory-loss.
I'm Linda Fleit. My husband and I were lucky enough to retire when we were 61, about nine years ago. We love being retired and want to share all that we've learned over the years about this wonderful stage of life.