Forgetfulness may seem like a natural symptom of aging, but in some cases, it could indicate something more severe, called mild cognitive impairment.
This year, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Alzheimer’s Association officially recognized for the first time that mild cognitive impairment can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. But because the symptoms often overlap with signs of aging, the disease is under-diagnosed.
“It can be difficult to diagnose because most people think memory lapse kind of goes along with age,” said Dr. Danny Park, neurologist at Swedish Covenant Hospital. “But it’s important, because it’s often the precursor to developing more severe, significant dementia.”
It’s the first time in 27 years that the diagnostic guidelines have changed, and the topic of mild cognitive impairment has garnered quite a buzz, including a story in the New York Times earlier this month.
According to the Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study (ADAMS), sponsored by NIA, mild cognitive impairment without dementia affects 22 percent of men and women 71 years old and older in the United States. That amounts to nearly 5.4 million Americans.
The condition’s newfound recognition illustrates that dementia and Alzheimer’s are actually progressive diseases that can begin taking effect years before they’re diagnosed. Because of that, Park said it’s important to get in touch with your doctor if you begin to notice that issues with your memory. Your doctor can help you track whether or not your memory is continuing to decline — an indication of mild cognitive impairment.
Unfortunately, Park said, there are no clear diagnostic criteria for mild cognitive impairment.
“It’s definitely a judgment factor,” he said. “As you get older, you might have certain times when you’re not coming up with certain words, but as it becomes more common than not, that should raise a red flag.”
Other indicators of mild cognitive impairment include losing your train of thought or struggling to follow along with conversations, movies and books, feeling overwhelmed by making decisions or interpreting instructions, increased impulsiveness and poor judgment. While those symptoms can also overlap with changes that come with aging, the main difference with mild cognitive impairment is that symptoms worsen with time.
There are steps people can take to slow down and even prevent cognitive damage. Park said a healthy and active lifestyle and an active mind are proven defenses for a healthy brain.
“Those are two things that patients can change now to hopefully prevent the further progression into dementia,” he said. He added that if the disease does progress to Alzheimer’s or dementia, there are medications that have been approved.
Park instructs patients to maintain a healthy diet and exercise and keep their blood pressure down and cholesterol low. For an active brain, he suggests a variety of mental exercises, including playing games, being social and doing crossword puzzles. It might also help them to take notes and even photos throughout the day, to help jog the memory.
“Whatever gets your mind activated,” he said. “It’s pretty helpful to use different strategies. I wouldn’t recommend just doing crossword puzzles over and over again because your brain will slowly get tired of it. It’s good to keep it active and do different things.”
Park suggests visiting a store like Marbles: The Brain Store in Lincoln Square.
“All their games are geared towards trying to keep the brain active,” he said.
Most importantly, he said to remember that mild cognitive impairment doesn’t have to be a life sentence. If detected early, simple changes in diet, exercise and brain activity can make a difference.
Is your loved one struggling with memory issues? You can help.
Memory issues concern the whole family. Sometimes, they’re a precursor to Alzheimer’s or dementia, while other times it’s just a matter of growing older. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), it’s important to determine if you’re dealing with a serious memory problem.
According to the NIA, signs of serious memory problems include the following:
• Asking the same questions over and over again
• Getting lost in places you know well
• Not being able to follow directions
• Becoming more confused about time, people and places
• Not taking care of yourself — eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe
If you determine that you, a friend or a family member are facing a serious memory problem, it’s important to make an appointment with a doctor to learn more. Changes in memory can also be related to drug interactions and non-cognitive diseases. Once you know the cause, you can find the proper treatment.
What can family members do to help?
If your family member or friend has a serious memory problem, you can help the person live as normal a life as possible. You can help the person stay active, go places, and keep up everyday routines. You can remind the person of the time of day, where he or she lives, and what is happening at home and in the world. You also can help the person remember to take medicine or visit the doctor.
Some families use the following things to help with memory problems:
• Big calendars to highlight important dates and events
• Lists of the plans for each day
• Notes about safety in the home
• Written directions for using common household items
For more information on understanding memory loss, visit NIA’s “Understanding Memory Loss” guide here.
For additional resources, visit the NIA’s other publications here.