Our aging brains: when do we start to worry?
How can we not worry about our parents' aging brains, or our own, for that matter? Alzheimer's disease is in the news several times a week. Major news outlets run specials about it, regularly. This constant flow of information about new findings in research, famous people with the disease (or whose parents many have it), and the "tsunami" of baby boomers who could "take down" our system because of the disease, can make us feel the disease will get us all.
Don't misunderstand me. Awareness of Alzheimer's disease is necessary so that research can continue. Finding a cure, or better yet, some kind of reliable prevention, is vital. Our aging population is, indeed, placing enormous stress on our health care system, to say nothing of families who must learn to cope with a loved one's diagnosis and decline in life quality. However, there does seem to be an undercurrent of excessive worry among boomers that can be distressing. I'm subject to it myself.
Did I forget where I put my keys? (Oh, oh - not good)
I can't find a word I want? (Oh, how I hate that!)
I forgot the name of that person I was introduced to? (Actually, I've always done that)
Most of us should evaluate our lifestyles to make sure we are doing all we can to minimize damage through aging, and then relax a little. Yes, we need to watch for signs of cognitive problems, as an early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease can be important. Also, many times, dementia symptoms can be caused by curable, unrelated ailments. But we don't need to ruin our very productive last decades of life because we have some "senior moments."
Emaxhealth.com recently ran an enlightening article titled Alzheimer's Brain Changes Begin Years Before Symptoms, in which author Denise Reynolds, RD, made some very good points about when to be concerned about Alzheimer's and when we shouldn't worry.
Most of us have read, or been told, that forgetting where we put our keys is not a sign of AD, but forgetting what they are for could be. This is sound advice. Reynolds makes some other interesting points:
"'During normal aging, the brain undergoes changes such as the development of abnormal structures, restriction of blood flow, and an increase in free radical damage. All of these can account for a general decline in thinking abilities and memory capacity, sometimes referred to as "senior moments.'"
In my opinion, this information makes a case for staying healthy overall, through diet that includes reducing free radical damage (think fruits and vegetables and some supplements), and getting aerobic exercise to keep our blood flowing to our brains. We certainly want to keep those senior moments at a minimum.
Richards goes on to mention the hallmarks of Alzheimer's, which can be quite different than normal aging, including neuron damage because of tau protein tangles, brain inflammation and low levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
In essence, the main thing we need to watch for is if your "senior moments" are interfering with your life to a significant extent.
- Are you simply frustrated because you can't recall words like you once did, or are you experiencing personality changes that alarm your family?
- Are you experiencing normal aging processes that could even be improved by following a better diet and exercising more, or are you getting lost on the way to the same grocery store that you've frequented for years?
- Are you upset because you forgot someone's name and it took an hour to have it "come back to you"? Or did you park the car in a strange place and then have no recall about why you did this?
We need to be aware that our risk for developing Alzheimer's disease increases with age. However, we don't want to ruin the productive time and pleasure we can have during the last decades of life when we actually have more hard-won wisdom than we had decades ago, just because we have slower recall when we want an obscure reference from the past.
We need to actively push for funding to explore Alzheimer's disease and other disabling diseases that afflict those we love, and we may need to monitor our aging loved one's on occasion if we notice some worrisome behavior. However, we also must seize the day and enjoy it for what it is. None of us know how many more days we'll have. If we are aging normally, that means we are alive. We can celebrate that!