At a certain point, most of us start to feel it: the reaching for a word just beyond our grasp, the mental note to do something we forget by the time we enter the next room. It’s not necessarily dementia; more likely a severe case of digital overload and multitasking mania. Yet books and films like Still Alice, in which a Harvard linguistics professor descends into early onset Alzheimer’s Disease (EOAD) at age 50, can hit a little too close to home. Who are we if we can’t remember?
In Memory and Emotion: The Making of Lasting Memories, memory expert James McGaugh of the University of California/Irvine writes: “We are, after all, our memories. It is our memory that enables us to value everything else we possess. Lacking memory, we would have no ability to be concerned about our hearts, hair, lungs, libido, loved ones, enemies, achievements, failures, incomes or income taxes. Our memory provides us with an autobiographical record and enables us to understand and react appropriately to changing experiences. Memory is the ‘glue’ of our personal existence.”
Michael Gambon understands McGaugh’s dictum viscerally: after portraying the wise Hogwarts headmaster in six Harry Potter films, the 74-year-old actor announced his retirement from live theatre, citing an inability to remember his lines. He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, fortunately. But there are a surprising number of unsuspected causes of memory loss, including sleep apnea, vitamin B12 deficiency (which can also lead to pernicious anemia), medications, and urinary tract infections, which can mimic dementia in the elderly.
How can a reverse mortgage specialist or senior client (or their loved ones) determine whether memory loss is a symptom of underlying disease?
- Flamingo pose. If someone can’t balance on one leg for at least 20 seconds, their brain health may be compromised. Scientists found those unable to sustain a one-legged stance to have cerebral small vessel disease, which can lead to vascular dementia (i.e., stroke). But seniors shouldn’t assume they are at risk if they fail the balance test: as we age, vision can become cloudy, hearing may decline, joints stiffen, and proprioception (the sense of where your body is in space) worsens. All of these factors need to be checked before drawing any conclusions about balance — which is more challenging for older adults for these very reasons.
- Skin test for Alzheimer’s Disease. Scientists have discovered the abnormal proteins that accumulate in the brain are also present in skin, and a skin test is in development.
- Be the belle of the ball. One longtime reverse mortgage specialist is also a longtime ballroom dancing devotee. Turns out his passion for dance is ensuring a healthier brain as he ages! Seniors who danced three to four times a week — especially those who ballroom danced — had a 75% lower risk of dementia compared with people who did not dance at all, according to a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. That’s a pretty impressive health score. The lead geriatrician on the study says, “Dancing is a complex activity that improves blood flow to the brain, which has been shown to improve brain connections. It also provides mental challenges.”
- Tickle the ivories. Playing any instrument — piano, guitar, sax, etc. for ten years or longer correlates with better memory in old age than those who played for fewer years — but any musical enjoyment is better than none; even listening to music boosts the brain.
- Parlez Francais. Learning a foreign tongue stretches the gray matter and builds cognitive reserve.
- Make a fourth for Bridge. Bingo and card games aren’t simply the province of older adults because they have the time to play; games that engage the brain, such as chess, checkers, bingo, Scrabble, and Monopoly, buy us more quality mental time.
- Read deep. Skip the link-happy online browsing and settle down with a good book or some in-depth magazine articles. Focused attention promotes better brain health, because new information is absorbed rather than overflowing down the mental fatigue drain.
- Stay social. This is a confirmed memory-protector: take a leaf from Star Trek Captain Jean-Luc Picard and “Engage!”
What if, despite someone’s best efforts, their brain succumbs to dementia? In this inspiring TEDtalk, one teen shares his simple invention, now in beta, designed to keep his night-wandering grandfather safe: a sensor-based technology that tracks where a senior goes from the moment their feet touch the floor, and sends ongoing updates to a caregiver’s smartphone. Clearly, many Millennials have their elders’ welfare at heart.