How often does this happen to you: you enter a room only to realize you can’t remember why you were going there in the first place. Or maybe you are searching all over for your sunglasses only to walk by a mirror and realize they’re sitting right on top of your head. These things happen to all of us at some time or another. But for those of us who are getting older we may say we’re having a “senior moment.” The good news is we can do something about it.
At one time people assumed forgetfulness and a decrease in cognitive abilities was just part of the aging process. We now know that’s not the case. In fact, brain issues like dementia have risk factors just like other diseases.
“The good thing is we do have control over our brains,” says Heather Stapelmann, the Resident Care Coordinator for the Memory Care Unit of St. Mary’s Care Center. “People need to keep in mind there are normal memory and cognitive declines with aging but those are very minimal. So if you are have some memory issues you need to rule out more definitive disease processes before you can just chalk it up to old age.” By focusing on prevention, we are likely to minimize our risk of developing the illness.
Take 92-year-old Ida Thoenig, as an example. She plays a card game called Quiddler three times a week at the St. Mary’s Care Center. On this particular day she’s dealt 10 cards (D,R,O,T,G,D,O,H,IN,TH) and asked to make as many words as possible out of them. Thoenig comes up with THIN, HOG and TROD, using all but one of the letters. And she’s pretty happy about that.
“The main thing is to keep you thinking,” she says.
Did you know some medical conditions can actually cause memory problems? Stapelmann says these include depression, thyroid disorders and vitamin deficiencies – all of which are treatable. When someone manages these conditions, they can often relieve some of the memory problems.
“My oldest gal was 105 and she had some memory issues when she first came to the Care Center, but after identifying and treating her conditions, it was very clear she didn’t have cognitive issues,” says Stapelmann. “This resident was just one example of how sharp your brain really is when you’re older.”
Now that doesn’t mean our brains at age 105 are just as sharp as they were at 15. In fact, every ten years our brains naturally shrink in size by about 2.5%. By about age 50, that can lead to normal cognitive changes like occasional memory lapses or a need to focus a little harder on tasks.
“You’ll see reasoning and problem-solving abilities stay about the same,” says Stapelmann, “But it will take some extra time. The speed of processing information will sometimes naturally slow. It’s not that these things can’t be done; it just takes longer to get done. Focus and attention remain pretty constant throughout your life as well but trying to multitask –- that becomes more difficult as we age.”
“Get to your doctor if you’re noticing things that just don’t seem right,” adds Stapelmann, “Like changes in personality –- drastic changes. People shouldn’t be having word-finding problems. But they can with dementias. Getting in and getting some tests done with doctors like a simple memory screen are routine health checkups that should be done when you’re noticing any mental health issues.”
Other signs you should see your doctor include misplacing things –- not losing your keys once in a while –- but actually placing things where they shouldn’t be like a remote control in your freezer, for instance. Or, if you’re trying to focus hard on one thing and you just can’t or keep forgetting, that’s another indication you should seek medical help.
So what can you do to minimize your chance of developing dementia?
Stapelmann says it’s a good idea to keep your brain active. “Exercise your mind –- keep learning new things, read, do crossword puzzles, word finds, anything that stimulates your brain and your thinking.”
Physical exercise, walking, swimming or bicycle riding for example, also are beneficial. Studies show that people who exercise regularly have a much lower risk of Alzheimer’s. The same is true for people who stay socially active –- getting together with friends, playing games, or even just sitting together and talking are all great brain “workouts.”
Eating healthy foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids also has been shown to protect against cognitive problems. Many types of fish and nuts are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
And finally, lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure levels can have a positive impact on memory as well. High blood pressure and high cholesterol levels raise a person’s risk of heart disease because they contribute to plaque accumulation on blood vessel walls. The same is true in the brain where plaque contributes to a condition known as vascular dementia.
You can live to a ripe old age with very little memory loss if you play your cards right like Thoenig. “Some days I feel 100 and some days 50,” she says. “The important thing is to keep active in sports and whatever you do.”
Nourish Your Neurons
The brain is really a “use it or lose it” organ. Follow these tips to keeping it in working order:
- Challenge Your Mind, Work on crossword puzzles, word games, and learn new activities. The more variety in your activities, the better.
- Stay Physically Active. When you exercise you improve blood flow to the brain which has been show to decrease one’s risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Eat Healthy. Choose fresh fruits and vegetables and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon.
- Lower Your Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Level. Plaque is not good for your heart or your brain. Lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol lessens the plaque that forms in both places.
Is it Truly a “Senior Moment?”
Scientists say the human brain was built to last -- meaning our perception of “old age” might be skewed. Check out the following examples from the Alzheimer’s Association about what’s normal and not normal when it comes to memory loss. If you’re experiencing things that are “not normal,” talk to your doctor –- there may be an underlying cause for your memory loss that can be treated.
Normal: Occasionally forgetting appointments.
Not Normal: Completely forgetting a very important date or appointment.
Normal: Losing things occasionally.
Not Normal: Placing your keys in the refrigerator.
Normal: Having trouble finding the right words when you’re talking to someone.
Not Normal: Stopping mid sentence with no idea how to finish or calling a common item by a wrong name.