Memory is one of the casualties of aging. It’s nothing to be alarmed about — unless it adversely affects your relationships with others, job performance or functions critical for independent living. Sure, sometimes it takes you longer to come up with a name than it used to. Sometimes it takes hours, even days, but you’ll come up with it eventually.
It usually pops up at the most inopportune time. You’re sitting in church— the third pew from the front— and just as the preacher is reaching the crescendo of his sermon, you blurt it out.
“What?” your alarmed wife whispers while simultaneously elbowing you in the ribs.
“The guy who played Jed Clampett on the ‘Beverly Hillbillies!’” you continue a little too loudly, clearly pleased with yourself before you realize that you have become the center of attention.
Of course, you have strode purposefully into another room and wondered why you were there. I’ve been doing that for years, and it’s usually because I start thinking about something else in transit. It’s quite normal, I understand, but you do it more often the older you get. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are perilously close to senility. I like to think of it as having an active mind, abetted by a short attention span. Sort of like being a little kid again.
What you are experiencing is most likely mild cognitive impairment, which is… Well, it’ll come to me sooner or later. Oh, that’s right, it’s a phase in the normal aging process, and it’s usually not severe enough to cause any significant problems as you go about your life. Then again, it’s an intermediate stage that comes before “the more serious decline of dementia,” according to staffers as the Mayo Clinic.
I was talking to a neighbor the other day and she was telling me how she and a male companion were taking a drive the previous Sunday and their conversation went something like this:
She: I’ve always liked this house. Who lives here now?
He: Oh, it’s that fellow who married that woman who works at the bank.
She: The one who’s a teller?
He: No, I think he drove truck.
She: I’m talking about the woman!
He: What woman?
She: Forget about them. It was the couple they bought this place from. I think he died and she’s at the personal care home now. She was a sweet thing. She made the best pies I ever ate. Oh, what was her name?
He: I don’t remember any woman at the bank who makes pies. Does she sell them at the bank?
She: No! I’m talking about years ago. Made the best pies and brought them to the firemen’s carnival. I can’t believe I forgot her name. She was my Girl Scout leader…
He: The pie lady! How could I forget? She made the most delicious… I think it was banana cream. Some kind of cream. You say she died?
She: No, her husband died. He was a big man. Weighed a good 300 pounds.
He: Probably from eating too much pie. Maybe it was coconut cream…
And so it went, wherever they went on their drive. Passing the school, they got stuck on coming up with the name of the school librarian who ran off with her garbage man and, by the way, what year was it that the pipes in the school froze and burst just before Christmas vacation?
“It was exhausting,” she recalled. “We thought a Sunday afternoon drive would be relaxing.”
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is best approached with a sense of humor. It does increase your risk of becoming a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, which is obviously a serious matter. It doesn’t have to be a morose death sentence, however, and you can actually improve your memory skills or slow deterioration to such an extent that it’s not going to be much of a detriment during your golden years. Being forgetful isn’t always bad. Depends on what you are forgetting.
Names are the easiest things to forget. As a writer, I find myself unable to come up with a word once in a while, but I‘m sure it is healthy mental exercise to write and express yourself regularly— even if it is just through letters and emails to friends and relatives. If you can’t think of a word, think of another with a similar meaning. You shouldn’t be too worried when a name escapes you once in a while, but when you start going blank on the names of people who are regularly in your life, that may be a signal that MCI is more than an annoyance. Losing a train of thought happens to just about everyone, because your mind tends to run ahead of your speech. However, if you find it difficult to follow the so-called thread of routine conversations, you should be wary.
Other issues that may ring the alarm bell are not being able to make decisions and feeling overwhelmed when doing so. Getting lost or having directional problems should also raise concerns. My late father knew the roads and towns of this area well. One of his favorite things was taking long drives and following back roads to see where they led— even if it was unfamiliar territory. The fun part was finding his way back, and it usually didn’t take him long. In his eighties he would start getting lost driving to places he had been hundreds of times before. He’d lost those memory connectors—similar to train of thought— that allowed him to get from one place to another without becoming disoriented.
I don’t know if this has happened to you. You’re driving along, let’s say on a familiar route you’ve taken many times before. You are functioning simply from instinct and reflex, maybe daydreaming a bit, and you snap out of it and immediately wonder, “Where am I?” Nothing looks familiar, but after a few seconds of rummaging through your short-term memory, your lame brain retrieves its sure footing and awareness returns. How your brain grew feet is another matter. This is normal, right? Right?
What’s with Grandpa and All the Cursing?
MCI, at its worst, can lead to depression or high anxiety, as well as ramping up aggression and making you more irritable. It’s a personality change. Energetic and caring people may become lethargic and apathetic. Good-natured people get upset over seemingly minor things. Kindly Nana suddenly becomes grumpy Grammy. And so it goes.
One positive thing about MCI is that by exercising your memory you may avert lapsing into drooling idiocy. For others, it’s a slow deterioration that can’t be stopped, and for others still it can be a quick hop into senility with little warning of what’s to come.
The chief risk factor is aging, and there is nothing you can do to stop that. It may also be genetic with a link to Alzheimer’s known as APOE-e4. Health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and poor circulation are also risks. Risk factors you can control are lack of exercise, lack of social interaction and abstaining from mentally stimulating activities, whether it is reading, doing crossword puzzles or computer games. Being around other people will stimulate you— even those who frustrate and anger you at times. It might be healthful to take a punch at somebody every once in a while. Just kidding… I think.
I forget more than I used to, and that makes me human and normal. I may be wrong, but I believe a positive mindset is the greatest ally in retaining mental alertness as long as possible. Looking at the final chapters of life as a learning process instead of a trial to be endured has to be a plus.
Now where was I?
Skill Note: Most of this blog is from a newspaper column I wrote years ago. I wanted to write something about memory loss, but I couldn’t remember what I wanted to write about it. Oh, well. Some things never change, but don’t ask me what they were.