THE BLOG
10/18/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Senior Moments, or Something More?

A common myth about aging is that as people grow older they will inevitably experience memory loss. While it is true that normal aging brings about some age-related brain changes, including minor changes in memory, often referred to as "senior moments," those changes do not affect one's ability to independently and safely carry out their normal daily activities. On one hand we might consider that to be good news, but on the other hand, according to the Alzheimer's Association, one in eight Americans over age 65 have Alzheimer's disease and nearly half of those over the age of 85 receive this diagnosis. These startling statistics cause many to fear that they too might one day have Alzheimer's, especially since almost everyone knows someone that has memory loss.

Here are some tips for those who may be concerned that either themselves or a loved one are showing signs of memory impairment and may be struggling with knowing how to differentiate normal forgetfulness from Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia.

Try to avoid denial. At first, even with the realization that memory loss is affecting a person's life, one of the first reactions of both the person and their loved one is often avoidance or even denial. It is especially difficult when family members only see their elderly loved one who is showing signs of forgetfulness occasionally, even if they talk by phone regularly, as it's easy to miss some of the signs of memory impairment. Special occasions, such as the holidays, bring opportunities to further assess the situation by visiting their home and spending longer periods of time together. For some, it might be surprising to find that their once organized and independent family member or friend has begun to show signs of memory loss, such as allowing dishes and newspapers to pile up, making unusual purchases, forgetting names, dates and places, or having marked changes in their appearance and personality.

Educate yourself. The Alzheimer's Association has developed the Top 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer's disease to help people recognize the difference between normal age-related changes and Alzheimer's disease. According to the Alzheimer's Association, the most common early symptom is difficulty remembering newly-learned information because in the early stages of the disease the part of the brain responsible for forming memories is affected. As it spreads throughout the brain other symptoms such as confusion, disorientation, personality changes, unusual actions and challenging behaviors may develop. For anyone who plans to spend time with an aging family member that they suspect might have memory impairment, I would strongly recommend that you review these warning signs prior to your visit.

Seek medical advice. Statistics and information on Alzheimer's disease are abundant, and the fear of a diagnosis can cause one to turn a blind eye to changes in behavior. It is important to remember, however, that many factors other than Alzheimer's disease can cause forgetfulness. Taking the first step and scheduling a full health screening with your physician can help uncover the cause of memory loss. Some forms of memory loss may even be reversible, such as those caused by medical conditions, (e.g., thyroid disorder), medication side effects, alcohol use and nutritional deficiencies. As with other changes in health, an early diagnosis is the key to a successful management plan.

Reach out to get support. If you or your loved one does receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia, there are many tools and resources available to provide assistance and support for you and for them. Support groups and community organizations such as your local Area Agency on Aging or Alzheimer's Association chapters are all very helpful resources.

Continue to live life to its fullest. While to date there is not a cure, there are a few medications that may help slow the disease's progression as well as many therapeutic interventions and communication techniques that can make a huge difference in caring for those with Alzheimer's and related dementias. Research indicates that remaining active and socially engaged is highly beneficial. Even though one is experiencing short-term memory loss, many of the long-term memories remain alive and through reminiscing, enjoying music, dance, art, taking care of pets and interacting with children, a person can continue to experience a high quality of life.

While we know that not everyone that grows older will develop Alzheimer's disease, if one notices signs and symptoms of memory loss in themselves or in a loved one it needs to be further investigated to determine whether it is only due to "senior moments" or truly is dementia. Taking this step can often be difficult and require a lot of courage. Be sure to lean on family, friends and the many resources that are available to you.

For more by Rita Altman, R.N., click here.

For more on caregiving, click here.