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Do You Live in Fear of the Memory Loss Boogeyman?

Here's something that could ease your mind.

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A maze with the shape of a house key in it
Photo: Shana Novak; Prop Stylist: Michelle Longo
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Fear of dementia looms large within me. Actually, it looms within a lot of us. We give it innocuous names like “senior moments,” but each time we misplace our phones or can’t find our car keys, the first place our minds go to is whether we are losing them — our minds, not the keys. Catch that? I made a clever little joke to mask my fears.

Dementia is among the top concerns of many seniors, in no small part because it afflicts so many and is a game changer for those of us who want to stay living in our homes forever. The National Institutes of Health says that by some estimates, about one-third of people ages 85 and older may have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia.

At 73 and coming from a long line of women who lived well into their late 90s (and one with dementia who made it to 104), count me among the worried.

Take today. I woke up and, like many mornings, I had to think a minute about which day of the week it was. My explanation is that I’m retired — a stage of life in which the days lose their distinction.

When you work Monday through Friday, you certainly recognize the weekend when it arrives. But as a retiree, I no longer live with an alarm clock or a calendar, and I only know Saturday because the stores are more crowded.

Names also sometimes do me in. I regularly confuse the names of my two children with those of my three dogs – not that it matters, since all ignore me equally. Sometimes I call my second husband by my first husband’s name, mostly when he’s driving too fast and has to hit the brakes hard. Stress in situations like that is a contributing factor and, again, not a sign of dementia.

Another thing I do is walk into a specific room without a clue as to why I’m there. I wrote about a University of Notre Dame study a few years ago that said walking through a doorway might be the culprit when that happens. It seems that when a thought is created in one space (the dining room table, where I am gift-wrapping), the doorway acts like a barrier to why I entered another space (the kitchen, where I keep the scissors and extra roll of tape).

The study seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but I now embrace it as gospel. Why? It’s that fear of dementia. If you join me in that fear and sometimes wonder if your absentmindedness is something more, take heart in this guidance: One symptom of more serious memory loss is that you’re not aware there’s a problem. So the mere fact that I worry means I have nothing to worry about. But if your family and friends seem more worried about your behavior than you do, listen to their concerns and see a doctor.

Misplace your house keys? It happens, and you are fine. Don’t remember which is your house? That’s more of a problem.

No biggie if you still can’t figure out the TV remote or how to reset the time on the old microwave. But if you repeatedly forget to turn off the stove or regularly can’t remember if you took your daily medications, it’s time to be concerned.

Using tools as a crutch to help you remember things can be a smart idea. I rely on GPS whenever I drive, even to familiar places. I’m a daydream driver, and I often space out. In fact, I do my best writing-in-my-head when I’m driving. Combine this with the fact that I have always been pretty directionally challenged — and loathe those people who give directions like “go north” instead of “turn left.”

More of a memory concern is when you have to ask friends and family for details multiple times or need help to do tasks that you once did yourself. It is fine if you mistake a $1 bill for a $10 bill when you pay cash at the register, although you might want to pick up a stronger pair of reading glasses. But if you can no longer do things that involve numbers — pay your monthly bills, check your credit card balance, follow a recipe — that’s a cause for concern.

And for what it’s worth, normal forgetfulness — also known as benign senescent forgetfulness — does not necessarily worsen as you age but is a different animal altogether. Also, be aware that certain medications can trigger memory fog and loss, report AARP and others. This includes beta-blockers used to treat high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, tricyclic antidepressants prescribed for depression and anxiety, and statins used to lower cholesterol levels — all things older people may have in their medicine cabinet.

While much focus — and research — is given to developing a cure for dementia, what should we all be doing now to prevent it?

The recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for improving brain health and reducing the risk for dementia include getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, preventing and managing high blood pressure, preventing and correcting hearing loss, and avoiding binge drinking and smoking.

I would add one more: Don’t worry so much about it.

Want to know more about the early signs of dementia? Then read this.

Do you worry about memory loss? Let us know in the comments below.

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