Senior Moments: What’s Routine and What’s Reason to Worry?

By Susan Goodman


When Cathy Millet’s book club convenes each month, the women quickly move from the discussion of the month’s literary selection to their regular “you can’t believe what I forgot” check-in.

“We invariably trade stories about what name we forgot or task we confused during the past month,” Millet explains. “We enjoy a good laugh.”

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  • For these seven women in their late 40s and early 50s, the monthly installments are the highlight of the evening. But behind the laughter, a common worry lurks: Are these experiences part of the normal aging process, or is something more serious happening?

    Many mid-life adults share this concern. The projected growth in the number of Alzheimer’s patients in the upcoming years is staggering. An estimated 14 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s by 2050 unless a means of prevention or a cure is found, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease is frequently in the news and, consequently, on people’s minds.

    Experts have some words of comfort to offer, however. There is, in fact, a normal range of memory loss associated with the aging process. And while there is no magic way to prevent Alzheimer’s, recent research does show that there is a positive correlation between a healthy lifestyle and a healthy brain. Eating well, reducing stress and pounding on the treadmill may not only lead to healthier lungs and heart; they may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia.


    “Normal” Forgetfulness

    Between the ages of 45 and 60, many of us begin to notice that we do not remember quite as well as we did in our younger years. Just as we begin to slow down physically, our mental capabilities start to decline. Often, what appears to be a reduction in mental sharpness is actually just a slowing in response time. We maintain the ability to understand new information; it just may take more time and effort to do so.

    Dr. Marilyn Albert, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, confirms this slowdown in our absorption rate in Keep Your Brain Young, a book she recently co-authored with Dr. Guy McKhann: “Although older people think they are forgetting things more easily, in fact, what is happening is that they are not learning them as well in the first place.”

    But researchers are finding that the extra effort is worthwhile. Once an older person learns the new material, she is likely to retain it as well as a younger person.

    In most situations, the forgetfulness that is associated with the healthy aging process is only temporary and tends not to become worse over time. The person who is stumbling for the information is very aware of the memory block – and probably concerned about it. It may occasionally be difficult to find words that seem to “be on the tip of the tongue.” Names and numbers can be particularly challenging to retrieve. These experiences are significantly different for someone with severe cognitive impairment.

    Dementia is progressive and debilitating. It causes people to rely increasingly on others for assistance with essential daily activities. The ensuing confusion seems to be less of a concern for the person affected, while often quite apparent to close friends and family. Finding a desired word can be a frequent challenge, often with inappropriate words used in substitution.


    More than “All or Nothing”

    Researchers have begun to shed light on the fundamental question: Does excessive forgetfulness necessarily result in dementia?

    It is now understood that there are gradations of memory loss, and confusion that exceeds the normal range will not always lead to an incapacitating situation. A recent three-year study found that 80 percent of people with mild cognitive impairments did not progress to Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, 15 percent of those studied actually showed an improvement in their ability to process information.


    Keeping Your Brain Healthy

    Media coverage today constantly reminds us of the link between a healthy lifestyle and a healthy body. We hear that a diet low in saturated fats is good for our cardiovascular system, and that kicking the smoking habit will dramatically reduce the risk of cancer. It’s also true, though not as well known, that these and other positive lifestyle choices are recipes for a healthy brain as well – and a healthy brain is now understood as a way to combat the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

    The MacArthur Foundation’s Study of Aging in America had some eye-opening findings that linked lifestyle and cognitive functioning. Researchers followed thousands of older adults for 10 years to gain a better understanding of the components that lead to a positive aging process. They discovered successful aging was based less on genetics than on lifestyle. Those who maintained strong mental abilities through the years had several characteristics in common. They lived a lifestyle that fostered mental alertness, physical activity and a positive self-image. They “exercised” their brain regularly with puzzles and books, computers and classes. They were engaged in regular physical activity, whether it was choosing to walk stairs rather than ride elevators, or giving up time in front of the TV to ride a bicycle. They felt good about themselves, often because they were involved in activities that produced enjoyment and a sense of control over their lives.

    The MacArthur Foundation’s and other studies highlight the following recommendations for successful aging:

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    • Eat well. A balanced diet is essential to overall good health and a well-functioning brain. A “heart healthy” diet – low in saturated fats, cholesterol and salt – is also considered a “brain healthy” diet. It keeps the weight down and reduces the risk of diabetes and other diseases that can impact the memory. Fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin E, such as berries and spinach, are particularly important. As an antioxidant, vitamin E is thought to fight particles in the brain that damage cell functioning in the brain.

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    • Exercise your body. Aerobic activity is good for the lungs and circulation, and produces substances that nourish and protect the brain. Doctors advise that the frequency of exercise is more important than the intensity. Exercising regularly at a moderate pace is optimal. Check with your doctor before undertaking any new fitness routine.

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    • Exercise your brain. Just as physical inactivity can lead to flabby muscles, limited mental stimulation can lead to a decline in memory. Learning new information or challenging your mind with complex problems is thought to stimulate strong connections between brain cells. The options for “mind exercise” are endless, and can be as casual as discussing world events or as challenging as learning a foreign language.

    • Kick the nicotine habit.
    The list of reasons for tossing the cigarettes continues to grow. The link between smoking and strokes has been well documented. Now the correlation between stroke and dementia is being examined. Earlier this year, researchers at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands found that older adults who experienced tiny or “silent strokes” had a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease than those who remained healthy. The findings further substantiate the recognition that people in mid-life should actively seek to avoid strokes – and that absolutely includes kicking the tobacco habit.

    • Get the sleep you need.
    When we have adequate sleep, we are mentally stronger. Sleep deprivation can slow us down and make it difficult to take in and retain information. Our ability to make good decisions can be impaired, and repeatedly using poor judgment can be misread as mental instability.

    • Reduce the stress.
    It seems logical to attempt to manage stress: living a stressful existence is unproductive and exhausting. A frustrating cycle can emerge – our stress leads to weaker memory; forgetting information can spark further stress. Moreover, long periods of unrelieved stress can have a damaging effect on the brain. As revealed by laboratory studies with animals, prolonged stress can result in deterioration in the areas of the brain that affect the ability to remember.