Importance of Evaluating Memory Problems Early

Today (November 16) is National Memory Screening Day, as designated by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. The purpose of the initiative is to improve public awareness about the signs of dementia, as well as promote early detection of memory problems so that treatment and support resources can be used in a timely manner.

Memory loss has long been identified as a normal part of aging. The expected changes that occur as we grow older are often minor and do not have a negative impact on our ability to carry out daily activities. Misplacing one’s car keys, difficulty remembering names or forgetting to pay a bill are a few examples of the more common slippages.

But more serious changes, and especially those that interfere with day-to-day functioning, can be an early sign that something is not right. Difficulties with planning or problem solving, confusion with time or place, decreased or poor judgment, and changes in mood or personality should be a cause for concern.

It is not unusual for older adults to have some reluctance about being tested memory issues. They hide the symptoms because they do not want to worry loved ones. Others avoid a memory assessment for fear that the findings will be negative and result in a diagnosis of dementia. These fears are easily understood because dementia is such a dreaded disease that impacts not only the older adult, but the entire family as well.

But early screening for memory problems still has several notable benefits. Cognitive changes can be due to any number of issues including medication side effects, emotional stress or underlying medical problems.

Early identification of the problems can lead to an earlier treatment of whatever is responsible for the changes, such as medication side effects or stress. Even if the concerns lead to a more serious condition, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, early diagnosis of the disease can lead to improved benefits from medical and behavioral treatments.

Although there is no cure for dementia, the medications available can slow the progression of the disease and extend someone’s current cognitive abilities. Another benefit of early screening is that it provides the older adult, as well as the family, an opportunity to fully discuss available options. There’s a lot to consider: choosing the right care team, planning for financial issues, and identifying appropriate community resources, for example. Any of these can help all involved prepare for whatever might be in the future.

If you have concerns about your cognitive health, or that of a loved one, it is important to talk to a physican or mental health professional specializing in memory or older adults.  The only way to determine whether memory changes are related to normal aging, or possibly a more serious condition, is to be tested.

Photo by Bamboo Senior Health (via Flickr)

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