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Is it Alzheimer’s, or just a memory slip?

Article / Review by on January 9, 2012 – 11:15 pmNo Comments

Is it Alzheimer’s, or just a memory slip?

A few months ago, I hung up the phone after a conversation with my 85-year-old father wondering, “Should I be worried about Alzheimer’s?” That’s because I noticed my dad struggling to express himself, faltering over the right words, and forgetting names. We live 1,500 miles apart, so I don’t get to see how he is doing day-to-day.

Losing-memory

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness—misplaced keys, a forgotten errand, the name of that movie you want to recommend but can’t get off the tip of your tongue. A certain amount of forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging. Researchers speculate that it may be linked to changes in the brain that begin around age 50, such as a decline in certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters or a gradual loss of receptors on brain cells.

How do you know whether to attribute some episodes of forgetfulness to normal age-related changes or something more serious? As the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease reveals, by noting some of the characteristics of these forgetful moments, you may be able to get a clearer sense of normal versus worrisome forgetfulness. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Is my loved one worried about the memory loss? When Alzheimer’s or other dementia occurs, the person affected is often much less concerned about memory loss than his or her family members. The reverse is true for normal age-related memory problems.

Is he or she getting lost in familiar territory? If your loved one doesn’t get lost in familiar surroundings, but does sometimes pause momentarily to remember the way, normal aging is likely. But getting lost in his or her own neighborhood while walking or driving, and taking hours to return, should raise a concern about Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

Are word-finding problems common? Occasional trouble finding the right word probably isn’t worth worrying over, but frequent word-finding pauses and substitutions —for example, calling the telephone “the ringer” or “that thing I use to call you”—is typical of Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

Is your loved one losing the ability to socialize, or interest in it? While it isn’t uncommon for an older adult to be unwilling to operate new devices or to fumble a bit with a cell phone or computer, it’s a warning sign if the person has trouble operating common appliances like the dishwasher properly or is unable to learn to operate even simple new devices. Also, it’s worth noting if he or she has lost interest in social activities or if his or her social skills seem to be declining.

The task of figuring out “is it Alzheimer’s?” is easier for me, since my father and 92-year-old stepmother have other family living nearby, and I often check in with them. If that wasn’t an option, I would talk to my dad’s doctor. That’s probably worth considering if you have unresolved questions or worries about a loved one’s memory.

A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease is available from Harvard Health Publications.

By Annmarie Dadoly Editor, Harvard Health Publications

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About Harvard Medical School (HMS)

Driving Change. Building Momentum. Making History. 

“Since 1872, Harvard Medical School has been the incubator of bold ideas—a place where extraordinary people advance education, science and health care with unrelenting passion.

Whether training tomorrow’s doctors and scientists, decoding the fundamental nature of life, advancing patient care or improving health delivery systems around the world, we are never at rest. Allied with some of the world’s best hospitals, research institutes and a University synonymous with excellence, the School’s mission remains as ambitious as it is honorable: to alleviate human suffering caused by disease.”

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### About Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH)

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public’s health through learning, discovery and communication. More than 400 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 1,000-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children’s health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights.

More at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) & Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). History.

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### About Harvard University.

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.

Harvard University is devoted to excellence in teaching, learning, and research, and to developing leaders in many disciplines who make a difference globally. Harvard faculty are engaged with teaching and research to push the boundaries of human knowledge. For students who are excited to investigate the biggest issues of the 21st century, Harvard offers an unparalleled student experience and a generous financial aid program, with over $160 million awarded to more than 60% of our undergraduate students. The University has twelve degree-granting Schools in addition to the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, offering a truly global education.

‘Universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking and harnessing new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modeling environments that promote dialogue and debate… The ideal and breadth of liberal education that embraces the humanities and arts as well as the social and natural sciences is at the core of Harvard’s philosophy. ’/ Drew Gilpin Faust

More About Harvard University & About Harvard University. Information.

### *  The above story is adapted from materials provided by Harvard University

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