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Published on: June 14, 2012
by Dr. Laura Davies for San Francisco Chronicle:
Is it dementia? Or just a bad day?
We all forget our keys. Forget the name of that person we met at that cocktail party last week. And who can always remember where they parked their car? Remote key chirps are a great invention.
With age, forgetfulness happens to all of us a little bit more.
It may be worrisome, but there are ways to distinguish between day-to-day forgetfulness, the more concerning memory difficulties of depression, and the even more frightful dementia.
Everyday forgetfulness is easy to identify. When our children forget to do their chores, we don’t worry about their memory – we think maybe they’re distracted. That is a bit like what happens in our brain because we have so much on our mind. If we don’t make a point of remembering something, we will probably forget it.
Coming up with a great idea for a project at the gym and then forgetting it because we didn’t write it down, or going into a room and trying to remember why are all normal experiences – if they don’t happen many times a day.
Beating ourselves up for not recalling everything we’ve seen or learned is pointless, as well; there is simply no way for our brains to store it all.
The memory difficulties of depression are different and have distinct features. If we feel incredibly forgetful, but the people around us don’t notice any difference in our ability to remember, depression may be the cause.
When we are depressed, leaving the garage door open one morning or forgetting the name of a song can become catastrophes. We imagine our memory is terrible and we feel as if our thoughts are slow. The everyday slipups can seem like a sign of brain failure.
Fortunately, memory lapses are reversible when depression is diagnosed and treated by a physician.
Dementia, which takes many months to develop, is much more serious than forgetfulness, and at this point is not reversible in most cases.
Mood problems come with dementia. Dementia affects the ability to think things through, to make good decisions, and maintain one’s personality.
Having things fall apart around us is a sign of dementia. This does not mean an isolated incident of putting the milk in the cabinet and the cereal in the fridge, but an ongoing pattern of strange things. When the checkbook isn’t balancing – and it used to – or meetings with friends are missed or avoided because of feelings of inadequacy, it is time to see the doctor.
Physicians will do standardized memory and laboratory tests. Depending on how they turn out, a team will come together to help with daily activities, medications, and financial and caregiving issues.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and can’t be reversed. But dementia also can be brought on by a thyroid problem, issues with blood pressure or bleeding in the head. That type can be treated or even cured, which is why it is important to talk to a doctor.
Dementia is very unlikely for anyone under 65. Less than 1 percent of the people under 65 living in the United States have dementia. By the time we are 85, approximately one-third of us will have dementia.
There is a lot that we don’t know about preventing dementia, but there are habits we can get into to stay sharp. Exercise helps memory. So do crossword puzzles. This “out of the box” thinking keeps us on our toes. Staying involved with friends and family makes a big difference, too. Limiting alcohol use is important – none of us bounce back the way we did when we were 21. It’s also a great time to start good habits such as writing things down, keeping a calendar and to-do list on your smart phone or, best yet, winning the lottery and hiring a personal assistant.
The next time you race around your flat looking for your sunglasses, only to find them on your head, you can take comfort that it’s probably not dementia, just everyday forgetfulness.
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