Is a lapse of memory a sign of Alzheimer’s?

I was making a mental packing list for a fall weekend at the beach: sweatshirt, jeans, sunglasses, those sandal things–you know, for walking on rocky shoreline? Kind of ugly, but useful? I could picture them clearly–the rubber soles and webbed uppers–but their name escaped me entirely. A person’s name, maybe? I started to go through the alphabet letter by letter, hoping for a clue. But it was gone. Not “wait, wait, don’t tell me!” Not “on the tip of my tongue.” Just gone.

This kind of lapse has always happened to me now and then, especially when I’m very busy, and happens more frequently as I get older. It happens to my patients, too, and they come in concerned that it may be the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. It rarely is.

Half of people over 65 notice more frequent episodes such as I’ve described, where they can’t think of a word or a name. Another common complaint is misplacing items like keys, or entering a room and forgetting why you’re there.

Normally, these lapses–I hate the term “senior moments” because they happen to non-seniors as well–are isolated, temporary, and not progressive. In other words, that name does come to you, you do figure out where the keys are, and the problem does not spread to other brain functions. Also, the sense that you’re having difficulty remembering things is subjective–your friends and family may not notice.

In early Alzheimer’s-type dementia (the term is qualified because only those who have specific pathological changes in the brain are said to have Alzheimer’s), family and friends may be more aware of a person’s memory deficit than he or she is. It’s not only word (or key) finding that’s affected, but also the ability to do certain familiar tasks such as tying a tie or following a recipe or card game. Recent information, such as what you ate for breakfast, is more likely to be inaccessible than remote data, such as the names of your elementary school teachers.

Here is nice summary of “normal” memory loss vs. signs of dementia.

Some research suggests that older people who have subjective memory loss of any kind are more likely to go on to have dementia in later years. But given the very high percentage of older people who complain of forgetfulness, it’s hard to know who should be especially concerned. And since treatments for dementia once it occurs are not very effective, prevention rather than screening seems more valuable, at least for now.

Here are some steps to help prevent dementia and they include exercise, reducing saturated fat in the diet, adequate sleep, and other measures recommended for general health.

For those seriously concerned about memory loss, a physical exam and blood work may help diagnose conditions such as thyroid disease, vitamin B12 deficiency, and vascular disorders that might be contributing to the problem.

For those, like me, who have occasional forgetfulness, try slowing down, stop multi-tasking, relax, and give it a few minutes …

KEENS!

Suzanne Koven is an internal medicine physician who blogs at In Practice at Boston.com, where this article originally appeared. She is the author of Say Hello To A Better Body: Weight Loss and Fitness For Women Over 50

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  • kutastha

    Your situation was actually tip of the tongue, but you made it difficult (I have never heard of a keen – looks like a brand name shoe). You made the memory retrieval even more complicated by going through the alphabet trying to pick up the first letter of a word you couldn’t recall. But you got it right at the end with relaxing and waiting for it. A better way to recall may have been to put yourself in a situation where you used the keens before – childhood, someone asking you about them (mom where are my…?), an old pair that stunk.

    Memory needs three things to function properly: registration, storage and retrieval. Your last sentence hits the nail on the head. People that are on the run and unfocused will not register things they need to remember (where’d I leave my keys?). If it’s not registered, it can’t be stored, and never retrieved. As silly as it sounds if you put your keys on the counter and say out loud, “I put my keys on the counter,” odds are hour later you’ll know exactly where they went (unless they walked away).

    The same goes for “why did I go in this room?” Well, you thought about going in the room to get your keys off the counter, so you left wherever you were to go get them. Then the mind wandered and you thought about going to the store to grab something for dinner, and what you had for dinner last night and the great conversation about the lack of depth in TV medical shows over that meal and what you’re going to watch tonight and if you should DVR it… and then, “why the heck did I come into this room?”