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Aging Concerns

Forgetfulness as we get older: What’s normal, what isn’t?

Have you forgotten where you placed your eyeglasses or your house keys? Do you sometimes enter a room and forget why you are there, open the refrigerator and not remember what you needed? Well, rest assured, this is normal. We all tend to forget things. If we are under stress, we tend to forget even more. As we age, we become very fearful of forgetfulness due to its association with dementia.

The difference between normal forgetfulness and forgetfulness associated with dementia is the pattern. For example, is the forgetfulness getting worse over time? Is someone asking the same questions over and over? Are conversations being forgotten? Is there a loss in the sense of direction, not remembering where one was headed? Getting into the car and forgetting how to turn it on, or not recognizing a familiar neighborhood. Are they taking longer to complete a familiar task, such as following a recipe?

This is very scary, and people can tend to deny there is an issue. They get defensive and argue about their memory when confronted with a concern. Nobody wants to be challenged about their memory. It is a very delicate conversation.

If you are concerned about your memory or know someone who may be having trouble with their memory, please know that help for assessment of the issue is available through your primary care provider. First and foremost, tests need to be done to rule out a medical problem before someone is diagnosed with dementia. It is not appropriate to diagnose someone with dementia without a full medical workup being completed. Simple blood tests can be done to rule out medical or vitamin deficiency that may contribute to memory loss. Maybe a MRI of the brain should be done to rule out a medical cause. A simple memory test that takes less than five minutes, can be given to assess memory function. Bring a friend or family member with you to the appointment. It helps to have someone else present to help clarify information later.

Some common questions that could be asked are: How long have you been experiencing memory problems? What medications — including prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs and dietary? Have you recently started a new drug? Have you recently fallen and hit your head? Have you recently experienced a major loss, change or stressful event in your life? What supplements do you take regularly? What are their doses? Any recent car accidents?

If a diagnosis of dementia is made, this would be a great time to prepare for the future by: Beginning treatments to manage symptoms; educating yourself, family and friends about the disease; determining future care preferences; identifying care facilities or at-home care options; and settling financial or legal matters.

Waiting for a memory problem to resolve itself is not the best way to treat the problem. They tend to worsen over time, and early diagnosis and treatment is beneficial.

Peggy Dorson Abbott is certified as a gerontological nurse practitioner and an adult mental health nurse practitioner. She has been working with older adults for over 20 years and has advanced knowledge in treatment of dementia. She provides numerous seminars throughout New Hampshire for caregivers on communication with loved ones with dementia. She lives in Peterborough with her husband, Raymond.

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