Is It a Senior Moment or Something More Serious?

You've done it again: lost your car keys somewhere in your house, or forgotten the name of a neighborhood acquaintance, or opened the refrigerator without having the slightest idea of what you were hoping to find. Everyone of a certain age has these so-called "senior moments," and many people make jokes about them to excuse their own forgetfulness. But are they just normal blips in an aging brain or signs of something more ominous to come?

To some degree, we all experience such foggy moments, especially as we get older. That's because our brain retrieves information on demand more slowly than before, according to experts on aging. Some of this slowing down is inevitable, and some can be attributed to problems such as insomnia, heavy drinking, high blood pressure, and many common medications. To some degree, these experts maintain, everyone over a certain age has subtle signs of dementia in their brains that don't necessarily ever manifest themselves in the way true dementia does. Much of this "slight Alzheimer's" is offset by what scientists call cognitive reserve, or extra brain capacity. Up to half of our cognitive reserve is inherited, and the rest can be created and nurtured by remaining active and intellectually stimulated. So even if it takes longer to remember something, our cognitive reserve will enable us to eventually make those neural connections.

But what if a loved one's behavior is worrisome? How do you know if it's simple forgetfulness or something more serious? Here's how to tell the difference:

Simple forgetfulness. You cannot remember the name of a friend of a friend to whom you've been introduced several times.

Possible dementia. You cannot remember the names of close family and friends.

Simple forgetfulness. You go the wrong way while driving even though you thought you knew how to get to that new restaurant.

Possible dementia. You frequently get lost in your own neighborhood.               

Simple forgetfulness. A word you want to use is on the tip of your tongue, only to be remembered later.

Possible dementia. A word you used to know doesn't mean anything to you now.

Simple forgetfulness. You don't remember where you left your cell phone.

Possible dementia. You don't remember how to use a cell phone.

If you're feeling concerned about the behavior of yourself of a loved one, make an appointment with your primary physican. She can help decide if further tests are necessary.



National Public Radio,