Plain old aging
First things first: There’s a big difference between the brain changes of normal aging and the cognitive disruptions of diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “In a normal, healthy brain, the major thing that happens as we get older is our neurons slow down a bit,” says Michael R. Wasserman, MD, board member of the American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation. Such slowing could mean taking a bit longer to process or react to new information. But Dr. Wasserman is quick to add two crucial points. One: Everyone is different. “I’ve met plenty of 100 year olds who are sharp as a tack.” And two: Cognitive problems that make it harder to get through your day, such as the following signs and symptoms, shouldn’t be accepted as part of aging; they should be taken as a signal to see your doctor. Watch out for these habits that are making you age faster.
Short-term memory loss
When it comes to disorders of the older brain, Alzheimer’s disease is a biggie, and it has a pretty clear early warning sign. “The area of the brain Alzheimer’s affects most is short-term memory,” says Dr. Wasserman. “So the major early symptom of the disease is short-term memory loss—that’s what everyone notices.” This could include everything from forgetting the day’s events to an inability to recall instructions. Repeating questions or forgetting recent conversations are also among the indicators, says David M. Holtzman, MD, Professor and Chairman, Department of Neurology, Washington University in St. Louis. “This can be caused by dysfunction in the medial temporal lobe, frequently among the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease as well as some other brain disorders,” he explains.