Having "senior moments" before you're a senior can be alarming. After all, everyone loses car keys and struggles with names on occasion. But if you notice a decrease in your cognitive abilities, experts recommend getting the problem assessed sooner rather than later.

"There's a lot of denial involved with memory functioning. We get increasingly forgetful and deny it's significance. Addressing problems early can make an enormous difference since a lot can be done to slow the progression of a cognitive disorder," says Jim Siberski, MS, CMC, CRmT, assistant professor of gerontology education at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania. Siberski suggests having memory problems assessed as soon as you notice them. "If we started running a high fever, we don't put off dealing with it. We're at the doctor on day two."

The best case is there won't be any actual dementia and your physician gains valuable baseline information. "In the worst case, a physician detects some age-related mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and starts treatment in a manner that your brain span will equal your life span," says Siberski.

There are several causes of memory loss, several of which are modifiable. Vitamin B12 deficiency, medication side effects, (in sleep aids, antihistamines, and pain relievers) thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders, heat stroke, or even a blow to the head can contribute to cognitive decline. Experts point out that the proper medication along with diet and exercise changes often result in noticeable improvement.

Mark Mapstone, PhD, associate professor in the department of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center says there are genetic factors that can contribute to dementia, but inheriting the genes doesn't necessarily mean you will automatically get dementia. "Just because your father had a drinking problem and you have the alcohol gene doesn't mean you are going to be an alcoholic. You may never want a drink. It's the same idea here."

Keeping the Mind Engaged Is Key

According to Harvard Medical School, by the age of 60, more than half of adults are concerned about their memory. Minor memory lapses that are the result of changes to the structure and function of the brain are a normal consequence of aging and are not usually signs of a serious neurological disorder such as Alzheimer's disease.

The good news is studies have shown that the aging brain is more adaptable than previously thought. Surprisingly, some cognitive areas such as vocabulary and other forms of verbal knowledge can actually improve in adults. The brain even continues to develop new nerve cells (neurons) even late in life. However, other studies have shown healthy people may have trouble with decision making, planning, learning new information, and memory. Blood flow in the brain is reduced because arteries narrow and fewer new capillaries grow. This is especially significant in men who are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease.

Professor Mapstone and other experts point out that men have more vascular issues than women so their dementia tends to be the vascular kind. "Things we do in our 50's and 60s that are good for the heart are also good for the head," says Mapstone.

Siberski agrees making a case for geriatric psychiatrists who he says have been thinking this way for years.  "The medical community seems to be finally catching on," he says.  "There's a new expression I'm hearing more frequently in neurological circles: if it's good for the heart, it's good for the head."

In addition to following advice you've heard before: eat right (people who eat a Mediterranean diet—which is plant-based and emphasizes fruits, veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, legumes, and nuts—have reduced incidence of heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's), stop smoking, don't drink too much, reduce stress, get plenty of rest, and exercise. Experts say maintaining a cognitive interest throughout your life, is also essential.

Different people find different activities stimulating. "For example, not everyone likes Sudoku so suddenly tackling Sudoku puzzles to stimulate your mind won't necessarily improve your cognitive abilities," says Mapstone. "The trick is finding what works for you. Some people like traveling, others like to read. Socializing or playing cards can also be stimulating. The truth is whatever it is that challenges you and brings enjoyment also helps the brain."

Unfortunately, dementia is not routinely assessed but with baby boomer men reaching their 70s (they typical age for dementia to set in) experts believe the scenario may change. Siberski recommends the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, an accurate screening tool to detect mild cognitive impairment (MCI). "It's the only diagnostic tool that probes all four lobes of the brain for MCI and dementia. It can be used by a physician in his office and only takes a few minutes. Depending on the score generated by the test, imaging studies such as the MRI may be recommended."

The mind is precious. Siberski and Mapstone encourage men to preserve theirs by having memory issues evaluated as soon as possible.




Interviews with Professors Siberski (Misericordia University) and Mapstone (University of Rochester)

Harvard University

The National Institutes of Health, National Institute On Aging