When is a ‘senior moment’ a sign of something more serious?

July 3, 2014 in Family Caregiving  •  By Miles Varn
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When people in your family age, they may become more forgetful, misplacing car keys or missing scheduled appointments. However, at some point, you and your loved ones may start to wonder: Are these “senior moments” a natural part of aging or a sign of something more serious?

Here, we will explore what it actually means to have a senior moment, as part of a series of blogs that dissects a broad problem that can affect many of our loved ones as they age.

Cognitive abilities are not just about memory. They also involve intelligence that has accumulated over time, focus of attention, verbal and language functions, problem solving and reasoning, and speed of processing mental and physical impulses. Problems with memory and cognition can have several causes:

  • Age-related cognitive decline. A loss of mental sharpness is not necessarily a direct result of neurological disease. As people age, they may be less sharp because of side effects from medications, depression, anxiety or pain-related conditions such as arthritis. Additionally, people may appear to be experiencing mental decline if their senses start to become weaker. For example, if your loved ones lose their hearing, they may not seem as quick or mentally agile as they once were.Previously, medical experts thought that age-related cognitive decline could not be stopped. However, with proper medical care, this process can be slowed down or, in some cases, reversed.
  • Mild cognitive impairment. Patients with mild cognitive impairment demonstrate a slight but significant decrease in memory, reasoning and other mental abilities. This may come in the form of forgetting recent conversations and other facts and events that were once easy to remember. People with mild cognitive impairment may also show lapses in problem solving or judgment, such as leaving the stove on after cooking or missing scheduled doses of medication. While these problems are prominent enough to be noticeable, they are usually not severe enough to interfere with everyday life. However, it is important to note that mild cognitive impairment is a risk factor for more serious problems, such as dementia.
  • Dementia. This is a class of diseases in which cognitive impairments are severe enough to impact everyday life. Dementia is marked by significant problems with memory, communication, focus, attention, reasoning, judgment and visual perception. These issues are caused by dying brain cells, and may grow progressively worse. With progressive dementia, early diagnosis is important to ensure proper diagnosis, treatment and planning.Types of dementia include Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). Alzheimer’s is one of the most common forms of dementia and mainly impacts memory, reasoning and judgment skills, and behavior.

If your loved ones are experiencing cognitive issues, the direct cause may not be immediately obvious. Diagnosis can be a complex process involving a range of medical professionals, including neurologists, neuropsychologists, geriatric psychiatrists, and geriatricians. Your health advisor can help you to identify appropriate resources to help guide your loved ones through the challenges of aging.

Over the next few weeks, we will post a series of blogs to help guide you through the diagnosis and treatment of age-related cognitive issues, so check back for new posts.