My Time: Fear of Dementia Can Be Overblown

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By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When my granddaughter was 5 or 6, I gave her a purple plastic child's wristwatch. Oh, how she loved this glittering princess treasure. But when her visit was over and it came time to leave, she couldn't find the watch. Tears, wails! I promised to look for it and send it to her. Three years later, I found the watch in a paper bag in the back of a drawer. I quickly telephoned my daughter with the news.

But by that time, my granddaughter didn't remember the watch.

A Junior Moment? My daughter and I burst out laughing. The child had moved on; her young brain, in the process of developing its neural circuitry, had leapt ahead with new information and experiences.

It's normal for a child to have memory lapses. But what if the situation had been reversed and I was the one who had forgotten the equivalent of the purple watch?

No laughing matter. With each memory slip -- a name not recalled, an important paper misplaced -- the dread rises in the chest: an early sign of Alzheimer's disease? So great is the fear of slipping into dementia, of losing one's mind, losing one's personhood.

"That's the number one concern of middle-aged adults: the potential specter of having a disorder that causes you to lose your ability to remember, to recall, [that] changes you as a person," says Molly V. Wagster, chief of the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch at the National Institute on Aging.

And sometimes concern morphs into panic. I go back to my granddaughter and the purple watch. We adults smile at the forgetfulness of the young. Maybe we should adopt a similar attitude about our own little memory lapses. So what if I forget where I put my glasses? Loosen up, Granny!

The fear of dementia has obscured the reality of mental resilience among older men and women. "It's not good to be paranoid and panicked," cautions Wagster. "It's good to be aware."

Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, is a devastating brain disorder, and the risk of developing it increases with age. An estimated 2.4 million to 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's. The number of cases is expected to double by 2030 because the population of those older than 65 is projected to double to 72 million. Among men and women 72 and older, about one in seven has some form of dementia, according to NIA estimates.

Memory loss alone does not mean that a person has dementia. The diagnosis generally involves a persistent pattern of memory lapses along with impaired judgment, difficulty with language, confusion, changes in personality and social behavior. Or, as health professionals often quip: It's not about forgetting where you put your car keys; it's forgetting what your keys are for, or putting them in the refrigerator.

Yes, the healthy brain changes with age -- for the better. As people get older, they have richer vocabularies and are better storytellers; they have better understanding of what is important in a mass of information than college students do, according to studies by Denise C. Park at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Older people also take longer to learn new things. The speed of processing information as well as memory recall starts to slow down in the 30s. With each decade, it gets harder to pull up a name, the title of a movie, a street address. "These changes occur around a time in our life when we may be extraordinarily busy," Wagster says. People may have teenage or college-age children and older parents; they may be in a very intense period at work. "It's not unusual," continues Wagster, to "have periods of being sort of scattered."

The Web site for the Mayo Clinic puts it this way: "Everyone has occasional lapses in memory. It's normal to forget where you put your car keys or to blank on the names of people whom you rarely see."

I think of my grandson who came for a recent visit. In the morning, as we are about to go on an expedition, he shouts: "Where's my other sneaker? I can't find my sneaker!" And I say: "Where did you last put your sneakers?" His reply: "I don't remember!" And I nag: "If you would put them in the same place. . . . "

It's a variation on the car-key theme: If you put the keys in the same place every time, you wouldn't forget where they are.

And then I smile. A little forgetfulness is normal at any age.

Comments: mytime@washpost.com.


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