Healthy Living

Is it Dementia or Just a ‘Senior Moment?’

From greeting cards to one-line zingers in a comedy sketch, having a “senior moment” is most often portrayed as a temporary mental lapse that we all have yet is somehow more humorous when the result of senior age. In real life, however, without the snappy comebacks or built-in laugh-tracks, that lapse of recall can be frightening. The irony is that because dementia is so frightening, many possible sufferers deny the signs while just as many might overreact to that ‘senior moment’ for fear of greater problems than ‘where did I put my car keys’.

For Linda Dean Miley, a former marketing and advertising executive, her quick wit and remarkable memory were essential for her business. Always on the go, always on to the next project, she became acutely aware of some memory issues following a health scare. It began with misplaced car keys but when she was unable to find her car one day, “I thought, is this the beginning?” Her grandmother had died of Alzheimer’s so Miley began researching.

As we age, there is natural deterioration of the brain, says Dr. Mark Pippenger, Behavioral Neurologist at Walker Memory Center and associate professor in UAMS College of Medicine Department of Neurology.

Dementia vs. Senior Moment

“Who hasn’t lost their car keys,” asks Pippenger. The key is whether it [the forgetfulness] impacts function. Are these impairments or changes that interfere with daily life?” Pippenger says that there are certain ways to discern the difference. Most people will walk into a room and suddenly wonder, ‘why did I just walk in here?’ while the real red flag is when someone walks into a room and does not recognize his or her own kitchen.

What Pippenger calls the “aging of America,” the increase of the senior population, naturally raises the number of dementia cases. “But we know from our clinical work that there are many people who are not diagnosed.” As we talk about the disease that robs us of our memory, Pippenger says that dementia does initially effects memory but there are other impairments that can be signs of the disease. Trouble with visual and spatial relationships, language and/or executive function, not being able to figure out how to do things they have done their entire lives, can all affect thinking ability and behavior. The real question is what is normal aging and what are signs of something more problematic.

  • Challenges in daily tasks
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion in time and place
  • Misplacing items (daily)
  • Inability to retrace steps

For Miley, just 57 years old, “The fear factor was there!” Not knowing if hers was simply a mild cognition issue or something more similar to her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, she made an appointment with a neurologist. “I couldn’t just sit and do nothing. It was like being on a train that you thought was going to wreck and all you could do was sit in the chair and wait.” Instead, she took a series of memory tests that involved simple arithmetic, repeating back specific words and numbers, memorization of a story, all designed to explore how she processed new information and if she could recall it. Miley’s results landed her in the ‘average’ range for memory and brought great peace of mind.

Senior Moment

For most people, that senior moment is really a momentary distraction or the result of our growing need to multi-task. Miley now serves as the founder and president of Help to Heal, a not-for-profit organization, that also requires a great amount of attention and passion. It is just what the doctor ordered. “It is important to remain active, socially aware and have purpose,” Pippenger says. Studies have shown that by engaging in mentally challenging tasks, having multiple social networks and being active are associated with greater cognitive function.

The ever-popular expression, ‘live in the moment,’ has never been more important for those worried about senior moments. In the high-speed, uber technological world we live in, distraction is constant. This, combined with poor health, poor nutritional habits, poor sleep patterns, even medications meant to reduce stomach acid, treat depression or control diabetes can slow the brain.

Miley serves as a wonderful example as to how and why being proactive in one’s own health is so important. Rather than worrying about memory issues, she sought medical support and set forth with a new mission in life, challenging herself cognitively, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically.

Proactive Measures

  • Keep regular appointments with your physician
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit alcohol
  • Limit sugar intake
  • Maintain a socially active lifestyle
  • Regularly engage in mentally challenging tasks and/or games
  • Maintain a regular sleep pattern (eight hours is best!)
  • Laugh more … (your mood has significant impact on your brain function)

The brain controls and coordinates our actions and reactions, our moods, our ability to feel and remember, and is arguably the most important organ in the human body. While most people would immediately drive their car to a mechanic in the event of any problem, too many wonder and wait before seeing a doctor when it comes to cognitive impairment. Don’t wonder. Go.

For more information see her book Operation Caregivers: #lifewithdemenia

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