Published on: August 8, 2015
by Dr. James LeFanu for Stuff:
Past the age of 40, forgetfulness is so common as to be unremarkable. When psychiatrists at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland in the US interviewed 200 healthy adults about the nature of their memory lapses, names came way out in front, followed in descending order of frequency by recalling phone numbers, where things had been placed, all the way down to losing the thread of a conversation.
But in general the subjects seemed less concerned with memory than the physical signs of ageing, such as wrinkles and grey hair.
It’s a different matter when the memory seems to deteriorate suddenly.
“I would sit in front of a book, turning the pages but not really taking in what I was reading,” recalls a retired university lecturer. He persuaded his family doctor to send him to a memory clinic, where tests revealed that his memory was actually average for his age – the reason for his loss of concentration being that he was depressed.
The influence of the psyche on memory is even more pronounced in those with the form of severe depression known as pseudo-dementia, which can be easily mistaken for a “true” dementia. The main distinguishing feature is that the “truly” demented will try to conceal their difficulties, while the “pseudo” demented are indifferent.
When asked “Who is the prime minister?”, the former group are likely to say: “By the time you reach my age, you have seen so many come and go that you don’t take any interest any more.” Those with pseudo-dementia are more likely to say: “Don’t know and don’t care.”
It is clearly important to identify this type of memory loss, as described by a former psychiatrist at London’s Hammersmith Hospital, who cites the case of a 70-year-old who had cared for his demanding, asthmatic wife since his retirement but had become unwilling to do so any more.
The previous year he had been diagnosed with dementia, but as his confusion had not noticeably worsened, the psychiatrist recommended antidepressants – following which he became “cheerful, active, alert, sociable, helpful – in fact his old self”.
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