Is my fading memory a indication of Alzheimer’s disease?

The question

I have noticed that my memory appears to be failing me. I am having more and more difficulty remembering people’s names. I’m also forgetting where I left things, like my keys and eyeglasses. I’ll also walk into a room and not understand why I’ve gone there. I dread to believe that, but could I be getting Alzheimer’s disease?

The answer

Memory lapses are rather common, especially as we grow older. You may have a word on the tip of your tongue, but it will not come to you until a couple of minutes or even hours later.

When that happens, it’s easy to conclude that your mind is slipping away. But occasional forgetfulness isn’t necessarily a harbinger of Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia.

Indeed, the natural aging process affects memory, also. So it is important to recognize the difference between regular age-related forgetfulness and the start of a mind-robbing disease.

To better understand the gaps, you want to know that . And a specific change in the mind has a fairly predictable impact on memory.

As an example, our overall knowledge of facts, concepts and language is called semantic memory and involves a region of the brain known as the anterior temporal lobe.

“As you get older, you can have difficulty with word retrieval,” said Sandra Black, a cognitive neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. This is especially true for remembering certain sorts of specific information such as people’s names or rare words.

The elder mind is just not as effective as it was. “Reaction time and data processing, generally speaking, is slower as we begin to hit our fifties,” Black said. “So it can take longer to process and retrieve data.”

This fact alone can explain why you could have that “tip-of-the-tongue” encounter when a word escapes you. The words are still there in your memory — they’re just harder to get.

In addition, it is worth mentioning that other factors — such as anxiety, stress, depression, poor sleep, a thyroid disease, vitamin B12 deficiency, excessive alcohol consumption and a number of medications — can lead to concentration issues and forgetfulness. In case you’ve got one of those issues and it is properly treated, then your memory usually bounces back.

Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is irreversible and changes the mind in a really different manner than normal aging.

It tends to begin by attacking the hippocampus, a region of the brain which plays a vital role in the creation of “episodic” memories, ” said Black, who’s also a professor of neurology at the department of medicine at the University of Toronto.

Episodic memories are about events that occurred in your own life, tied to a particular time and place — like what you did last weekend.

“People with Alzheimer’s beginning to get very poor recollection of things that happened lately,” Black said.

In the early phases of this disease, they might not remember all the specifics of something they did a couple weeks or days ago. As the condition progresses, short-term memory gets shorter and shorter.

Not able to recall the recent past, the distant past could slowly become blurred with the current. “A person might be decided to see a parent — even though that parent expired several years ago,” Black explained.

How quickly the disease progresses varies from person to person. “Initially, people mostly have a short-term memory issue but they are working very well otherwise,” she said. “This is called mild cognitive impairment.”

With time, Alzheimer’s starts to hamper other mental abilities, such as language comprehension and word finding, spatial navigation, judgment and abstract thinking. At this point, the disease has progressed to what is called dementia and the individual needs increasing help with daily activities.

But despite the lack of short-term memory and other cognitive functions, the individual may continue to have the ability to execute some quite complex tasks — like playing a musical instrument. That is because procedural memory — or learned motor skills (how to do things) — entails the sensory-motor regions, the cerebellum and basal ganglia, which are relatively well preserved until late in Alzheimer’s, ” Black said.

Ultimately, however, more and more of the mind is affected and all significant types of memory and higher thinking evaporate. It gets to the point at which a patient can not remember what happened just a few seconds ago.

Alzheimer’s is not the only disease that can lead to dementia. A stroke — along with other conditions that damage the brain — can also have an effect on memory and cognition in many different ways. In actuality, some patients might have more than one illness contributing to their own mental deterioration.

This may all seem rather grim. But remember that many people who experience a lapse in memory do not have a serious neurological illness. An occasional memory glitch is probably due to natural aging as the mind becomes less efficient at processing and remembering information.

Naturally, that expected decline might not be very reassuring to those who dread the concept of getting older. However, you can do things to increase your chances of aging gracefully. Regular exercise, eating a nutritious diet, not smoking, in addition to maintaining socially and mentally active can help protect the human body and the brain.

What’s more, utilizing various reminder techniques — such as making lists and setting timers — can help memory.

Older individuals certainly do not have the agile brain of a 20-year-old, but they do have a life of adventures — and that accumulated knowledge should not be undervalued.

Paul Taylor is a patient navigation adviser at . He’s a former health editor of The Globe and Mail. You can find him {} @epaultaylor and online at Sunnybrook’s .

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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