What’s normal and when should I be worried?

Have you ever entered the parking lot of the mall after a full day of shopping and wondered, “where on earth have I parked my car?” Does this lapse in memory mean you should be worried about Alzheimer’s? Probably not. We are allowed a certain number of “slip ups” as we age. Also, if one’s mind at the time of parking was focused on that new bag or those new pair of shoes rather than the location of the parking space, it would explain the difficulty of locating the car later on.

Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia is not a part of the normal aging process. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one of the initial signs of Alzheimer’s can be forgetting recently learned information. Other signs include forgetting important dates or events, asking for the same information over and over, and increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (such as reminder notes).

Other early signs may be problems with planning or working with numbers or learning new information. In some instances, a person might experience trouble losing their train of thought while speaking or have trouble finding the right word. People living with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates or the passage of time.

A typical age-related change is misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them. A person living with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. Sometimes, they may accuse others of stealing. This may occur more frequently over time.

Making a bad decision once in a while is considered a typical age-related change.

People living with Alzheimer’s may experience changes in judgment or decision-making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, giving large amounts to telemarketers. They may pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean.

People living with Alzheimer’s will often begin to withdraw from social activities and hobbies. Often, changes in personality or mood swings are noted.

A visit to the doctor is recommended for concerns about memory loss or confusion. There can be many causes of memory loss or confusion, some of which are treatable – such as depression, infection, or even a vitamin deficiency. If the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, early detection is important for planning the future and communicating one’s wishes with friends and family.

While current medications do not prevent, stop or reverse Alzheimer’s, they can possibly help lessen the symptoms, such as memory loss and confusion, for a limited time. In the meantime, research indicates there are things we can do for brain health as we age.

According to Dr. Jonathan Rosand of Massachusetts General Hospital, the following tips can help keep our brains healthy:

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Eat healthy. Try the Mediterranean diet. It emphasizes consuming fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nuts, while limiting meats and replacing butter with olive oil.
  • Meditate. Meditation can change the brain’s structure and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Control blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is a leading risk factor for stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Talk to your doctor about what pressure level works for your body. The lower, the better, from a brain-health perspective.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can accelerate brain degeneration. Eight hours per night is a common recommendation, but needs vary by person.
  • Keep learning. Learn something new. Take a class, read a different type of book. Specific brain games have not been proven to be better than other learning activities.
  • Be aware of your experience of traumatic events. A serious accident or illness or a life-threatening experience can have an impact on your brain that puts you at risk for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. These are common conditions that can be treated effectively, if recognized.

Ellen Phipps is executive director of Aging Together. She is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist and has a master’s degree in gerontology from Virginia Commonwealth University. Ellen is co-author of “Connections – Engagement in Life for Persons with Dementia, A Complete Activities Guide.” Aging Together builds collaborations to support older persons, families, and caregivers in Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, Orange and Rappahannock counties.

This article originally appeared in Fauquier Times | August 18, 2019