Q&A: Are my Memory Lapses Simply Senior Moments?
Dear Dr. Nagpal: I am 54 years old and I think I’m losing my mind – literally. Lately I can’t seem to remember anything. I forget where I put my keys. I will walk into a room and forget why I went there. At work people will ask me questions about something they e-mailed to me, and I don’t even remember the e-mail! When I look, the message is there and I clearly read it. I have been under a lot of stress lately, but this really has me worried. My father has Alzheimer’s Disease and I’m afraid I might too! My doctor just tells me that what I am describing is normal “for someone my age.” I don’t know what to do.
Dear forgetful and worried:
Your doctor seems to favor the explanation that you are experiencing normal ageing, and your lapses are simply examples of “senior moments.” You are not so sure. It is indeed worrisome when you can’t remember everyday things, like where you put your keys, and even more worrisome when you don’t remember an email you just recently read. It is also understandable that with you father having Alzheimer’s you may think you are starting to show signs of the disease as well.
Having early onset Alzheimer’s is one explanation for your memory lapses. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, and dementia is characterized by a decline in memory as well as other cognitive abilities. Alzheimer’s does appear to come about in stages, and nearly 4% of Americans with Alzheimer’s have early-onset (that is, onset before the age of 65). In the early stages, memory loss can be so minimal that it can appear to be simply a product of normal ageing. On the other hand, memory lapses can also be signs of depression or simply being overwhelmed, and high stress levels can indeed impact your memory. It is often difficult to tease out which one of these issues is responsible for the troubling symptoms that you have been experiencing.
Two things might be useful at this stage: one, actively identifying your stressors and trying to reduce your stress level. No matter what the explanation for your symptoms, reducing stress through exercise, meditation, or other coping skills, can be an important part of addressing the overall picture. If, your symptoms alleviate through stress management strategies, then this is useful information to have. Second, do consider tracking what you are experiencing on a daily basis (you may wish to use a phone or online application). Please remember that Alzheimer’s often only become diagnosable after a certain threshold has been reached. Your tracking of information about yourself can be of tremendous use in arriving at an early diagnosis.
The Alzheimer’s association’s 10 early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s might be helpful to you as well. This site specifically lists the signs and also give you what a typical age related change might look like, as a point of comparison. If you continue to be concerned, consider getting a comprehensive medical evaluation with a doctor who specializes in Alzheimer’s disease. Often getting a diagnosis involves not only a medical exam, but cognitive tests, neurological exam and/or brain imaging. Your local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association may be able to assist you with a referral. Good luck to you.
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Summer calls for a change of pace, and I will be taking a break from Q&A for a few weeks. I plan to be back in the Fall. In the meantime, please continue to send in your questions for me through the Saline Post. Have a great summer!
Smita Nagpal, Ph.D.