Monday, May 9, 2011
Just Because You Lost Your Keys Doesn't Mean You Have Alzheimer's Disease
You can’t find your keys. Or you open the refrigerator door but forget why. Or you can’t remember the name of someone you’ve met several times. Situations like these can create frustration and even fear in middle-aged adults. Could these be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD)?
Relax and enjoy a sigh of relief, because episodes like these are common in middle age, and are most likely features of normal, age-related memory change. The key words here are “normal” and “age-related.” For many of us, these normal changes can begin around 35 years old.
How do we distinguish normal, age-related memory lapses from AD? There are several factors, including the severity and frequency of the forgetting; the extent to which forgetting interferes with your work or social life; and whether or not you are able to benefit from using a calendar, notes, or other mnemonic devices. It’s also important to understand that AD is much more than a memory disorder. It involves cognitive, behavioral, and even personality changes.
The Differences are StrikingTo illustrate the difference between age-related memory changes and AD, consider the thought process and steps you might take when your keys are lost.
Most of us look in the places where we usually leave our keys. Then we check the purse we just used or the pockets of any jackets we recently wore. Then we would widen our search to include less likely places, such as the front door or car, and eventually other places where they might be.
The fact that you can remember the likely places requires memory and cognitive abilities that a person with AD usually cannot muster. A person with AD might find the keys by searching randomly, or might forget what he was looking for and abandon the search altogether.
Consider another scenario: it is common to get lost while driving to a location we have only been to occasionally. However, a driver with early stage AD might get lost even on frequently driven streets.
A routine of doing two errands together, such as going to the bank and then the supermarket, can be challenging. A person with AD who goes to a different branch of the bank, though still in the neighborhood, might not be able to find the way to the supermarket. The inability to recognize and implement the necessary adjustments to the routine is a cognitive deficit common in Alzheimer’s disease.
More examples of the contrast between the age-related memory changes and AD are included in the “Know the 10 Signs” section of the Alzheimer’s Association website: www.alz.org.
Memory Improvement — It's for EveryoneThere are a number of tips we can all use to improve our memory, or to make forgetting less costly or time-consuming. Follow the adage: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Try to leave your keys in the same bowl, on the same hook, or in a specific pocket of your purse.
Write things down and frequently update your “to do” list. Maintain a detailed calendar with upcoming appointments, birthdays, and even events that recently occurred. Although this might sound obvious, if you jot down a phone number, make sure to write the person’s name next to it.
Set an alarm clock or timer to remind you when to leave for an appointment. It also helps to say out loud or to yourself things you want to remember, even something as simple as why you are going into a room.
Make Connections in Your MindThis is especially helpful if you pair a word with a visual image. If you meet someone named Mike, try to picture a microphone. Annabelle? Envision a bell. To make it easier to remember the names of people you meet, repeat the name silently to yourself a few times, and then try to use it aloud with the person in your conversation. If you forget a name, try reciting the alphabet in your head since hearing the first letter will often jog your memory.
In general, to improve memory, focus your attention on one thing at a time. Listen closely when you’re in a conversation rather than focusing on the next point you want to make. Stay in the moment and avoid letting your mind wander.
If you become upset when you do forget something, first calm yourself with a few deep breaths. Give yourself a chance to remember. These techniques can help your memory and, in doing so, reduce anxiety you may have about signs of AD.
If you do have concerns about your memory or that of a loved one, regardless of age, please have an evaluation by a physician or psychologist with specialized training in this field.