“Remind me again, what’s his name?”, By Dr. Sven W
Memory, Learning and Aging
When tackling a subject out of my specialty, I feel like Dr. Oz. The main difference is that he does it every day and ends up sounding like the ultimate expert. Good research, followed by expert writing and editing makes all the difference.
Today’s topic hits home because it more or less affects all of us as we pass that 60 year mark – some more than others. All of us experience the ”Where did I put my keys or glasses?”, or “Why did I go into this room?” or “What’s that word I was looking for?” and most often, ”What’s his name?”. How about “I just finished a great book- what was the author’s name?” and “I can’t believe I forgot the title”.
What we find most troubling about these quotidian experiences is the uncertainty of what they portend. “Does this mean I have early Alzheimer or dementia?” or “Is this going to get worse?” These troubling questions strike at the core of the matter. It causes general anxiety, leading to fear of being diagnosed with an underlying disorder. At times you are caught mid sentence, in the middle of a thought, realizing that you cannot remember a name or word. The reactions are real, but are they justified? When does one seek help?
Aging, with associated memory loss and learning difficulty is a now recognized as a common and normal phenomena. There are physical changes within the brain both on a macro and micro level. Our brains literally get smaller, all types of fibers and filaments get laid down interrupting normal pathways and bridges. Chemical processes slow down and weaken. Call it wear and tear or a natural aging process but the hard evidence is there. Other possible contributors include thyroid and liver disease. Chronic alcoholism or habitual use of sleep medications can add to the problem. Stress, anxiety, sleep deprivation, jet lag and depression can all lead to memory impairment. As we age we are all susceptible to these ailments. However, notwithstanding these contributing factors, the natural process of aging is the most common underlying condition. Learning new subjects and retaining information seems so much more difficult than during college years. Forming synapses between neurons so that we can learn new information, retain it and use it at a later date is harder as we age. Depressing?
The antidote is never to give up.
Sometimes memory loss can be more serious. Way before developing forms of dementia certain individuals note they are misplacing or losing things more often, forgetting appointments or meetings, having trouble finding the right word-all not severe enough to impair daily living or function, but clearly manifesting a change in normal behavior. Today, this phase is labeled Mild Cognitive Impairment. A small, but not insignificant percentage go on to develop full blown dementia.
What to do? If you, or your spouse, or companion do have these changes or anxieties go see your doctor. He will be able to assess you or refer you to an appropriate specialist for a formal evaluation and testing.
Most important, he should be able to allay your fears and guide you in the right direction.
What can the 60isthenew50 do to prevent the inevitable? Obviously eating right, exercising, adequate sleep, avoiding excess alcohol consumption and unnecessary drug use puts you in the right direction.
Other helpful tips are: pursuing active and frequent social interactions, starting educational courses, studying new languages, learning new skills, travelling and visiting new places and in general, being as physically and mentally active as possible. Learning is harder and more time consuming but well worth the effort. Tax yourself with extra hours, invest in new and difficult pursuits and you will reap the long term benefits. Reach out and grab the opportunity.
“Man, be not content.”