Not Born Yesterday

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Are You Losing Your Memory? Part 2

Five signs it might be serious

Those two articles that I thought I had lost, about when — and when not —  to worry about losing your memory have magically reappeared. Of course, they were right where I put them, but who knew? In Part 1 we talked about signs that mean it's probably not serious. Now, it's time to get serious.

The first point the article makes is that our brains begin to deteriorate by our late 20s. That surprised me. I didn't have any problems with my memory at that age. (At least I don't remember any!) But in later years something more serious than aging may be going on.

When should you worry? The following five signs might suggest a trip to a doctor who specializes in memory disorders. An evaluation can also rule out things besides Alzheimer's, such as medication side effects, depression and stress.

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No. 1:  Lapses in memory frighten you.

We all get frustrated and irritated when we lose everyday objects (such as these two articles I thought were lost) or you find your missing car keys in the freezer and can't for the life of you figure out how they got there. Such things are common to us all, especially as we get older, but when they make you fearful, or if they seem to be occurring too often, that might be time to worry. (I've always heard that losing your car keys is no big deal, but if you can't remember what to do with them, once they turn up, it's a sign that something's not right.)

No. 2:  How you work or play has changed because of memory problems.

A classic distinction between normal memory loss and dementia is that the symptoms interfere with your everyday life. Some people with early dementia recognize the symptoms and try to compensate for them. You may always have been a list-maker, but now you need more detailed lists and even reminder notes to look at the lists. Or you've stopped having people over for dinner because you can't get the recipes right anymore. You give up driving, not because you can't pass the test, but because you are afraid you might get lost. (If you are like me, who was apparently born without a sense of direction, getting lost is something you have been doing all your life, so this doesn't count.)

No. 3:  Your friends and family express concern.

You may not think you have a problem, and you certainly don't want to be reminded that you might, but it happens. And that can put you on the defensive, where you don't want to be. A recent study finds that the ability of family and friends to spot early signs of dementia and Alzheimer's disease surpasses even some sophisticated scientific methods. It may be because they see you on a daily or other regular basis. What they may notice is that you are repeating stories or questions, sometimes word for word, in a short space of time. Of course, we all do a bit of that as we get older. But those of us who don't think we have a problem usually preface such remarks with, "Have I told you this before? I'm getting more and more forgetful in my old age!"

No. 4:  Friends and family are starting to "cover" for you.

It can be annoying when well-meaning people say, "It's easy to get lost in this part of town. Want me to drive?" Or, "It'll be easier if you just order what I'm having," because what they are actually doing is compensating and taking over for you. If this is happening, it may be because these well-meaning but annoying people are seeing problems with your memory that they are not willing to discuss openly. Covering for you may be a sign that they have lost confidence in your normal ability to manage money, for example, or make decisions that involve keeping track of details and making judgments.

No. 5:  You are having trouble making choices.

Well, this sort of goes along with No. 4, doesn't it, which is why others are jumping in to take over and make choices for you. But if you, yourself, are noticing that you feel uncomfortable with, or virtually unable to make everyday decisions that used to be a snap, such as ordering from a menu, or what movie you want to see, or choosing what to wear that day, it can be a red flag. Especially if you used to be a person who always knew what you wanted, and made decisions without any hesitation, this new condition can be scary. Doctors say that choosing involves cognitive powers, and losing them is an early sign of dementia.

If all this sounds a little worrisome, it is. But there is one way to find out if you have a problem, and that is to be thoroughly evaluated by a competent specialist in memory loss. Then at least you will know, and maybe stop worrying. 

E. E. Smith is a playwright and book author. Her new series of murder mysteries debuted in 2013. The first is titled Death by Misadventure. 

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