When does forgetfulness become a sign of dementia?

Dr. M. Khalid Hasan

Everyone has moments of normal forgetfulness — Where did I put my car keys? Where did I park the car?

But for loved ones of aging parents and grandparents, how do we know if that forgetfulness is a normal part of aging or a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease?

Dr. M. Khalid Hasan, with Raleigh Psychiatric Services, explained that diagnosis for mental degenerative issues like Alzheimer’s can be difficult.

While there is research on doing skin or saliva tests to check for these concerns, only brain biopsies can prove if a patient has dementia or Alzheimer’s, he said.

Brain biopsies are considered experimental in the United States, so clinical diagnoses must be made by discussing concerns with both patients and their loved ones.

Difficulty in diagnosis is compounded because pure dementia and Alzheimer’s are rare. Often patients have a mixture of the two.

Hasan explained that names are the first things he sees patients forget, but it is only a concern when individuals forget names of close friends and family chronically.

Patients with these aging diseases might forget visitors are there or even look in a mirror and not know who they are. 

Family members should be concerned if a loved one forgets a recipe more than once that they’ve known all their life or has to ask for directions in a very familiar place.

Hasan added that looking at bank statements and financials is a really good way to tell if a parent or close relative is having memory issues.

Often patients forget to pay bills or give to a charity organization more times than expected.

He stressed that anyone can have forgetful moments, but repeat forgetfulness is a concern.

There are currently an estimated 5.3 million people with dementia, and that number is expected to grow to 15 million by 2050.

With life expectancy on the rise, Hasan said prevention and protection from memory loss is crucial.

Often reading or crossword puzzles are suggested to keep the mind sharp, but Hasan said it’s not that easy. The important thing is that you do new mental activities.

If you always do the Sunday crossword, try Sudoku or other brain teasers.

“If you always to the same activities over and over again it won’t help,” he explained. “The key is doing something different. Learn new dance steps or a new language to improve the intellectual fitness.”

New activities are shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain thought to be the center of memory.

Exercise and socialization are also important. He suggests walking one mile a day at a rate of 15-20 minutes or taking a dance or tai chi class.

Dementia is also more frequent among individuals who are lonely or isolated. Taking part in book clubs, art classes, exercise groups and card games can be a benefit to older citizens by increasing socialization, learning something new and increasing physical activity.

A major part of prevention is also dietary, said Hasan.

Research shows that diets full of fish, vegetables, beans, olive oil, green tea, wine, spinach, nuts and tomatoes can improve mental health and memory recall.

New research is also showing that spicy foods, especially curry and turmeric, can prevent decline in memory function.

Lastly, Hasan said there is some correlation between seasonal depression and onset of dementia. Using light boxes meant to treat seasonal affective disorder could also help keep the mind sharp, he said.

“Ultimately, the main focus right now should be on prevention. There are drugs that have come out, but they are not proving to be as helpful as changing diet, increasing exercise and learning new activities,” he added.

— E-mail: splummer@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @Sarah_E_Plummer

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