I'm in an age group where people joke about their memories - sort of. There is always a little fear attached, when they do this. The little laugh has a nervous edge. Is this normal? Is aging supposed to do this? Maybe I'm just stressed or tired.
I get annoyed with one friend, because every time I forget a name, or what I was earlier thinking I was going to mention, I get the, "Oh, we all do that," comment. Before this friend comments, I'd only be thinking I'm juggling too many balls and I'm bound to miss one once in awhile. After my friend comments, I start to wonder. "Is this normal? Memory loss with age isn't really supposed to be normal, according to many studies. Maybe I'm developing a problem."
I read a lot about memory loss and aging, simply because I write about aging and I write about dementia. I was also a caregiver to four elders with four different types of dementia. I know there's a lot of research out there, and it all doesn't come to the same conclusion.
The theory I like best - am I allowed to choose? - is the "my hard drive is full" theory. As the decades add up, we keep adding information. What was sitting on top of the heap when we were ten years old, is now buried under several more decades of information. Therefore, it isn't that we've forgotten the information; it's that it's buried under a load of stuff, rather like a computer that has too many programs loaded into it.
That's the theory I like for a healthy, aging brain. The brain is maybe not as fast at recall, but it's full of information, and if you'll just give us a little time we can throw out some impressive information.
There is something more worrisome, however, that affects many of us as we age, and if we have too many slipups, it's something we need to consider. That is mild cognitive impairment, known as MCI.
Considered by many experts as a possible precursor to Alzheimer's, MCI is supposedly detectable with a standardized test. However, an article titled, Standard tests may miss cognitive decline in older adults," from the University of California, reports on a study which has shown that, "People whose mental abilities have declined according to their own judgment and that of a close friend or family member, but who do not have mild cognitive impairment (MCI) according to standardized tests of mental function, show changes in brain structure and function similar to those seen in people diagnosed with MCI..."
So, what does this mean? For now, it seems that this study may lead to more sensitive tests which, instead of measuring the person's test results against other people, the test results measure a person against their previous functioning. That makes a lot of sense to me. It's going to be fascinating to see this research move forward, since even more sensitive testing can mean earlier intervention with medications that can stave off the mental decline that comes with Alzheimer's disease.
There's likely no need to panic if we have a full-hard-drive moment. However, if we and our family members feel we are "slipping," we should see a doctor about some tests to see if we are showing signs of MCI or even the pre-MCI these researchers were looking at. We should also have a complete physical workup to make sure our medications aren't causing problems and that certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies (such as low absorption of B12) aren't the culprit.
Early diagnosis is becoming more important as new drugs emerge that can stave off the worst effects of dementia. If we can keep the decline at bay long enough, maybe something closer to a cure will develop. Sensitive tests such as the one these researchers used for this study will help identify the people most likely to benefit.
Published On: October 30, 2008