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Brain Aging – Distinguishing Normal Symptoms From Alzheimer’s

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Brain Aging – Distinguishing Normal Symptoms From Alzheimer’s about undefined

When did you last perform the splits, a handstand or a backward somersault? A long time ago, I suspect. We all accept this loss of youthful athletic prowess as an inevitable feature of aging. Yet, perfectly normal mental decline is viewed differently.

Each memory slip raises the prospect that we’re losing our marbles. Yet, as with the physical body, the brain goes through age-related changes. So, it’s vital to know the difference between normal changes – ones we can be relaxed about - and genuinely concerning symptoms. Here’s what you need to know…

Typical Age-Related Changes vs. Signs of Alzheimer’s

“Where did I put my car keys?” We’ve all been there, hunting around each room for them. But perhaps this isn’t the only example of a memory lapse. Maybe you also struggle to find the right word, forget people’s names, or enter a room but can’t remember why. Let’s look at whether the most common memory lapses are anything to be concerned about.1

Trouble With Recalling Recent Events

Forgetting something you’ve just been told is not unusual at any age. It happens when you’re not really paying attention to what was said. However, a consistent inability to hold on to recently given information is one of the earliest and most common signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Forgetting Names and Words

Forgetting the name of someone you’ve recently been introduced to is extremely common at all ages, but forgetting the name of someone you know well is a frequent complaint of older people.

This doesn’t raise a red flag for cognitive issues, however, so long as the name is recalled at a later point. Being unable to find the right word is such a regular event that it even has its own clinical name—“tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) state.” This is caused by changes in processing speed, a normal part of aging, and the slight delay in finding the word barely interrupts normal conversation.

However, those with Alzheimer’s disease may constantly struggle to find the right words, stop in the middle of conversations, and be unable to continue, or may frequently repeat themselves. These difficulties can lead to withdrawal from conversations and social activities.

Mistakes with Numbers and Calculations

Normal age-related changes can cause occasional errors to creep in when you’re managing finances and household bills, even ones you previously carried out scrupulously.

Yet, with Alzheimer's, working with numbers and keeping track of bills can become burdensome without help or the need to pass the task onto others.

Unable to Complete Familiar Tasks

Remembering settings for the oven or microwave, washing machine, and television can be troublesome. Occasionally, the brain freezes on what needs to be done. Again, these kinds of senior moments are normal. But with Alzheimer’s disease, completing these tasks can become a permanent struggle, making it hard to successfully finish everyday tasks like driving to a familiar location or organizing a shopping list.

  • Confusion: Thinking it’s Thursday when it’s Friday or walking into a room without knowing why can occur at any age; forgetting where you are and how you got there or not knowing whether it’s summer or winter is a sign of Alzheimer’s.
  • Object location: Misplacing the phone, car keys, or spectacles occurs frequently, even among young people. But those with Alzheimer’s may put possessions in unusual places, lose things, and be unable to retrace steps to find them.
  • Judgement: Everyone makes the occasional poor decision or mistake, but making unusually bad financial decisions or paying less attention to grooming or personal hygiene could be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
  • Mood: We all develop set patterns for doing things and may get irritated if our routine is disrupted. However, those with Alzheimer’s are easily upset when out of their normal routine. They may become anxious, fearful, depressed, suspicious, or confused.

What The Experts Say

If you need further reassurance about whether your memory slips are a normal part of aging, here’s what the experts say.23

  • Thomas Wisniewski, a professor of neurology, pathology, and psychiatry at NYU’s Langone Health, reminds us that just as we’re at our physical best in our youth, the same holds true for our memory. “The raw power of our memory tends to peak in our early twenties,” he said, and then it’s a slow downhill slide from then on.
  • Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT: “Memory lapse really is normal at every stage of life.”
  • Dr. Megan Sumeracki, a learning and memory specialist at Rhode Island College, said: “A degree of forgetting is natural to allow the brain to remember more general information. Memory does not work like a recording device…”
  • Dr. Althea Need Kaminske, cognitive psychologist at Indiana University said that “our memory systems are not necessarily designed to remember where we put our phones or keys or water bottles.”
  • Bradford Dickerson, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School: “It’s very clear that there are a number of changes that occur with aging and cognition that are just part of getting older.” For instance, “word retrieval becomes more difficult with age…retrieving it takes more time.”
  • Jason Shepherd, an associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah: “The thing I’d most like people to understand is that, yes, there is some normal cognitive decline during aging. But it’s not a disease state. It’s part of life.”

Our Takeaway

While we hope these expert opinions comfort you as you notice changes in your memory, this doesn’t mean you must accept that brain drain is inevitable.

Your brain will change, but it’s not all bad news. The brain is remarkably resilient and has the power to protect—and even correct—itself, improving cell-to-cell communication through a process known as neuroplasticity. Improving your brain health begins with the right support, including a healthy lifestyle, an anti-inflammatory diet, and antioxidant-rich nutritional supplements and nootropic formulas.

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