THE BLOG
07/29/2014 07:54 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

Worried About Your Memory? Here's When To Go To The Doctor

Anna is concerned about her memory. It seems she's having a lot of "senior moments" lately. She often misplaces her keys and has trouble remembering the names of people to whom she's been introduced. She can't help but worry it could be something more serious. In fact, she is nearly paralyzed by the fear that she may be developing Alzheimer's.

Let me say right up front that the purpose of this article is not to help you determine if you have Alzheimer's. The purpose, as implied by the title, is to help you decide whether a physician should be consulted about memory issues.

We are all forgetful from time to time. Given the growing attention to Alzheimer's in the news these days, many of us -- especially we senior citizens -- have a nagging worry about it. Could it be happening to us? Could we be getting Alzheimer's?

According to a Harvard Health Publications article, "Is It Forgetfulness or Dementia?"

"A certain increase in forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging and is perhaps a result of changes in the brain that begin around age 50, such as a gradual loss of receptors on brain cells and a decline in certain neurotransmitters."

The article continues, "Normal forgetfulness is neither progressive nor disabling. Such memory problems are likely to surface when you're under stress, fatigued, ill, distracted, or overloaded."

Let's take a look at the most-often cited list of 10 signs of Alzheimer's disease, presented in a PDF published by the Alzheimer's Association:

1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
4. Confusion with time or place
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
8. Decreased or poor judgment
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
10. Changes in mood and personality

While we all experience some of these symptoms from time to time, this PDF is particularly helpful for several reasons. For each symptom it gives examples. It also explains what could be considered a "normal" sign of aging for each of the 10 items. Finally, it has space to write in examples of an individual's specific symptoms to take to the doctor.

Look closely at the PDF and you'll notice a couple of things. First is that the severity and frequency of a given symptom is important. For example, if a person is an accountant and becomes completely unable to balance the checkbook this may be reason for concern. But occasionally making an error while working on the checkbook is probably not something you should worry about. The second thing is that, as mentioned above, the symptoms of Alzheimer's typically disrupt daily life while signs of normal aging usually do not.

Additional examples of the difference between normal aging and Alzheimer's are given in articles published by On Memory, Senior Helpers, and Newsmax.Health. The latter states that with normal aging, we may forget where we parked at the mall, but with Alzheimer's we may forget how we got to the mall. According to On Memory, forgetting the names of people you rarely see can be normal, while forgetting the names of people close to you can be an early sign of Alzheimer's.

The Senior Helpers article points out that misplacing things from time to time may be normal. But putting things in very unusual places and accusing others of stealing them could be of concern. I give the following example: If you put your glasses in a desk drawer when you normally put them on the top of the desk, that's one thing. But putting them in the freezer or on a high shelf in the garage or in a suitcase kept in the basement is another altogether.

I personally noticed the difference between normal forgetfulness and Alzheimer's in my loved one several years ago. It started innocently enough with him sometimes forgetting proper nouns. But then he began calling things strange names. For example, he would refer to the Fifth Third Bank as "Kroger's." Then his name calling became bizarre. He called his hands "elbows" and he said that his watch was "glasses."

Then one evening he called me because he couldn't find his scissors. So far, so good. Occasionally not being able to find a given object is common, I thought to myself. But when I told him to look in his kitchen -- that's where he kept them -- he became confused and asked me what a kitchen was. He then informed me with certainty that he didn't have a kitchen. That's when I had to admit that something very serious was wrong and that I needed to take him to the doctor.

I would suggest two circumstances that might lead you to go to a doctor. First, if you are experiencing the type of memory issues indicated above as possible signs of Alzheimer's, it would be a good idea to write examples down on the Alzheimer's Association PDF and take it to a neurologist or family physician. Second, even if you aren't having such memory problems but you're still overly worried about your memory, it might be worth a trip to the doctor.

It isn't pleasant to be evaluated for Alzheimer's, but a physician may determine that it's not Alzheimer's. That will put your mind at ease. And, as I discussed in a previous article I published here, "How to Convince a Loved One With Alzheimer's Symptoms to Go to a Doctor," if it is Alzheimer's it's best to know sooner rather than later. There are many important benefits to early diagnosis.

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of the uplifting book, Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website (www.ComeBackEarlyToday) contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.

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