Q. I am concerned that I’m getting Alzheimer’s. When I walk into a room, I don’t remember why I’m there. When I park my car, I often forget where it is? My friends tell me this is “age related memory loss.” Is this true?
A. Since we are constantly hearing information about Alzheimer’s, many people believe that every memory lapse is a sign of impending dementia. This is not true. The problems you describe happen occasionally to everyone regardless of age.
In a study published in the “International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry,” researchers theorized that elderly people who complained about memory loss were often experiencing high levels of anxiety that interfered with their ability to concentrate. If older adults are overly concerned about their memory problems, it may be fear and anxiety making them forgetful and nothing more. In fact, the study found little difference in the mental functioning of older and younger adults as long as they were in good health.
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York theorize that age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s are two separate conditions. Alzheimer’s affects the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for new memories. Age-related memory loss affects other parts of the brain. Because of these differences, some age-related loss can be reversed or slowed by taking better care of one’s mental and physical health.
There are natural brain changes that happen as people age. Although perceptual speed and numeric ability begin to decline around the age of 60, one’s reasoning skills and verbal ability can remain intact into the 80’s and 90’s.
As people age, there are even areas of functioning where one improves. Most people in their 60’s and 70’s are better at decision-making than are younger people. Older people are generally not as driven by emotion, and take a more reasonable approach to conflict.
If you have serious concerns, schedule an appointment with your physician. There is a good chance that you have fear and anxiety about your memory issues and not dementia.
Q. I am a 75-year-old woman who wants to stay mentally healthy as long as possible. I have a real fear of dementia since my mother had it. What are some things I can do to remain healthy?
As people age, it is important to take care of one’s brain as well as one’s body. According to an article written by Dr. Gary Small, a professor on aging at UCLA, and published by the National Center of Biotechnology Information, there are several ways to maintain healthy brain function.
Small suggests that the first step to avoiding memory loss is to lower one’s stress levels. Several days of exposure to high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can cause problems with brain processing, especially as people start to age.
Exercise is important in maintain good mental health. Studies show that those who are more active in their younger years have fewer risks for Alzheimer’s as they age. A more recent study found that adults between 60 and 75 had improved brain function after an aerobic exercise program.
Many research studies conclude that a healthy diet is also important in maintaining optimal mental functioning. Diets high in carbohydrates, such a bread and pasta, raise the glycemic index and may increase the risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These conditions may be contributing factors to memory loss or dementia. Instead,nutritionists recommend a Mediterranean diet which is high in fruits, vegetables and olive oil.
Staying mentally active is equally important. Research has established that those who read, have mentally stimulating jobs, or continue learning into older age, have fewer memory problems.
Aging is a natural part of life, but people can remain mentally healthy longer by making a few lifestyle changes. Dr. Small’s book, “The Memory Bible,” provides updates on practical suggestions on improving memory. It is written for individuals who have mild age-related memory complaints.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City. She teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College and maintains a private practice.