When should you worry about “senior moments”?, from Harvard Medical School PDF Print E-mail
News Releases - Health, Medicine & Nutrition
Written by Raquel Schott   
Tuesday, 10 January 2012 09:27

BOSTON—Everyone experiences occasional episodes of forgetfulness.  When an older loved one has a few episodes of forgetfulness, friends and family members may wonder whether those misplaced keys or trouble finding the right word in a conversation is the result of normal age-related changes in memory or an early sign of something more serious. As the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease reveals, the characteristics of these forgetful moments often offer clues as to whether Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia may be the underlying problem. For example:

Recognizing and discussing episodes of memory loss. If the person complains about memory loss and can provide details about the episode of forgetfulness, normal aging is more likely. With dementia, it’s common that the person affected will only complain about memory problems if she’s asked about them and won’t be able to recall specific instances.

Worry about memory loss. When dementia occurs, the person affected is often much less concerned about memory loss than her family members are. The reverse is true for normal age-related memory problems.

Losing the way. If your loved one doesn’t get lost in familiar surroundings but does sometimes pause momentarily to remember the way, normal aging is likely. But if she gets lost in familiar territory while walking or driving and takes hours to return, Alzheimer’s or dementia should be a concern.

Word-finding problems. Occasional trouble finding the right word probably isn’t worth worrying over, but frequent word-finding pauses and substitutions — for example, calling the telephone “the ringer” or “that thing I use to call you” — are typical of dementia.

Changes in abilities and social skills. While it isn’t uncommon for an older adult to be unwilling to operate new devices or to fumble a bit with their cell phone or DVR, it’s a warning sign if the person has trouble operating common appliances like the dishwasher or has trouble using even simple new devices. Also, if the person has lost interest in social activities or if his or her social skills are in decline, it’s worth noting.

Of course, while these tips can help distinguish between normal age-related memory changes and dementia, concerns about memory problems should be brought to the attention of a doctor.

A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease includes more information on recognizing and managing Alzheimer’s disease.

Also in this report:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and changes in the brain
  • Medications for managing symptoms
  • Planning ahead on legal and financial issues, as well as residential care
  • Help for caregivers

A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease is available for $18 from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School. Order it online at www.health.harvard.edu/Alzheimers0112 or by calling 877–649–9457 (toll-free).

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