Excuse me...Who am I? On forgetting and memory loss!

September is Alzheimer’s awareness month. I’ve heard many youngsters say,
Excuse me...Who am I? On forgetting and memory loss!

BENGALURU: September is Alzheimer’s awareness month. I’ve heard many youngsters say, ‘Oh, I forgot my homework..must be Alzheimer’s’, or ‘I’m sure I have dementia, I’m so forgetful’. So many of us use these terms without understanding how difficult it is to be aware of a loss in our most precious faculty, that is the brain.

Suddenly becoming clumsy, forgetting small things, forgetting names, fumbling for words, can be an extremely scary realisation to many older people. Many older people come to me with complaints of forgetfulness, memory lapses, unsteady gait, crying spells.

‘Doctor do I have dementia?’ they ask… I also notice the impatience and briskness displayed by the caregivers of such people who usually have a barrage of complaints about this older person, a mother, or a father, or grandparent who suddenly seems to have changed into something annoying and difficult to manage. Forgetfulness is probably an integral part of ageing, dementia isn’t. It includes a loss of higher mental functions such as thinking, reasoning, remembering, and learning. There might also be a loss of behavioural abilities to the extent that it interferes with one’s quality of life.

People with dementia may also develop problems with language, naming objects and paying attention. Some may even develop delusions (which are false beliefs) and hallucinations (false perceptions). Personality changes, anger, sadness, confusion and mood swings are also common. Urinary and bowel incontinence can further complicate caregiving and also affect the self esteem of the previously independent and sharp minded person.

Having said this, not every elderly person who has forgetfulness suffers from dementia. Here are some common differences between normal ageing and dementia:

Normal ageing

  • Forget routines
  • Forget tasks and sometimes words
  • Forget days of the week or month but remember later
  • Losing things from time to time
  • Can become moody and grumpy
  • Insomnia and restlessness are common

Early signs of dementia

  • Forgetting directions or getting lost
  • Confused about time, people and places
  • Mood swings, crying spells, anger
  • Asking the same questions again and again
  • Being able to remember childhood events but for getting what one ate for breakfast half an hour ago
  • Repetitive talk
  • Poor self-care, not bathing, eating poorly, behaving unsafely, and sometimes inappropriately
  • Losing things often
  • Fumbling over words
  • Soiling clothes

Most of the time one may not be aware of these changes and they’re usually noticeable by family and friends. There are many metabolic and neurological changes that take place in dementia and a lot of them and can be linked to high blood pressure, diabetes and other metabolic conditions if not under control. While normal ageing does involve memory loss and a loss of faculties, dementia and Alzheimer’s have more ominous outcomes.

(The author is a mental health professional and psychotherapist)

Dr Purnima Nagaraja

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