Let’s answer some frequently asked questions about dementia and memory loss with a member of our team, Dr. Patrick Fissler. He is the Research Director & Co-Founder of MindAhead, and he has 15 years of experience with dementia prevention and research.
Is it early-stage dementia or normal aging?
Memory lapses can be a normal part of aging. It’s not uncommon for someone to forget where they parked their car, momentarily blank on a name, or misplace a bill. These instances, while frustrating, typically don’t signal a serious problem. However, when memory issues escalate to the point where a person doesn’t recall significant events, fails to recognize close relatives, or struggles with everyday tasks like writing checks, it’s time to pay closer attention.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re dealing with full-blown dementia. However, it could be an indicator for mild cognitive impairment, which is often a stage before dementia.
What degree of forgetfulness is normal?
As we get older, everybody will eventually experience some memory problems. A 90-year old won’t be able to remember as well as they could at 70 years. So memory lapses, slower thinking and hearing loss are all expected.
What should be cause for concern are memory lapses out of the ordinary, like not remembering a close relative’s name or putting things in more and more unusual places. One time I had a patient who put their car key in the fridge. Or if someone was an avid cook but now struggles to make even a simple recipe, this too could be an indication that the brain is changing.
However, one last thing is important to remember: Memory and mental clarity can be affected by other things as well. A person who hasn’t had enough sleep, is depressed, drinks too much, or lives an isolated lifestyle can have memory problems because of their lifestyle, not necessarily because of their brain.
How does dementia get diagnosed?
You can use scientific questionnaires to get a better idea of the mental state of yourself or your loved one. In order to properly diagnose MCI or dementia, professionals have to be involved.
Your loved one’s regular doctor can diagnose Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia based on medical history, a physical examination, laboratory tests, and questionnaires about changes in thinking, day-to-day function and behavior. Doctors can determine that a person has dementia with a high level of certainty.
You may also want to consult a specialist, such as a neuropsychologist or neurologist, to get more information and more options for interventions.
How quickly does cognitive impairment progress?
The speed at which memory loss or cognitive impairment progresses varies a lot from person to person because of factors such as:
– The type of cognitive impairment or dementia – for example, Alzheimer’s disease tends to progress more slowly than other types
– A person’s age – for example, Alzheimer’s disease generally progresses more slowly in older people (over 65) than in younger people (under 65)
– Lifestyle – the progression to dementia can be slowed if a person makes lifestyle changes to be more physically active and reduce unhealthy habits like smoking, for example
– Other long-term health problems – dementia tends to progress more quickly if the person is living with other conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, particularly if these are not well-managed.
– There is no way to be sure how quickly a person’s condition will progress. Some people will need support very soon after their diagnosis. Others will stay independent for years.
What other factors should be considered?
It’s important to understand that memory loss and forgetfulness do not occur in a vacuum. They are often accompanied by other symptoms of aging and even diseases that can exacerbate the problems. Hearing loss, for example, can make memory problems worse.
Studies like the so-called “Religious Orders Study” from Dr. David Bennett involved over 1,000 participants over many years. His study (among others) found that physical activity, beneficial for cardiovascular health, also plays a crucial role in maintaining cognitive function.
People who have cognitive impairment should remain mentally, physically, and socially active. It’s important to do a variety of different things because this stimulates many different parts of your brain.
We’ll end with Patrick’s #1 tip:
Dementia is a sensitive topic, and it’s very scary. That’s why we tend to put it off for too long. Spouses and relatives often watch their loved ones deteriorate for years, and frequently notice memory lapses before ever engaging a physician. By the time we see them in our clinic, a lot of time has passed. Talk to your doctor as soon as you notice any signs of memory loss or dementia. Catching this condition early is critical for getting the right treatment.