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Seven reasons to get your memory evaluated

A question that I am often asked by family members, friends, and even by other physicians and nurses that I work with, is “Should I get my memory evaluated?” Partly, the question is asked because they have noticed memory problems, and are struggling to sort out whether theses lapses are an inevitable part of normal aging versus the start of something more ominous, such as Alzheimer’s disease. But another part of the question—particularly when asked by healthcare professionals—goes unspoken: “We can’t really do anything about memory problems, anyways, right? So why should we bother getting our memory evaluated?”

This latter sentiment was most recently voiced by a physician who criticized me for diagnosing and treating her patient. “Wouldn’t it be better to not tell him?” she said. “Wouldn’t it be better not to make him worried and depressed about having Alzheimer’s disease?”

One in ten people (5.5 million) over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s dementia and about 200,000 people younger than 65 have early onset Alzheimer’s. I’ve been thinking about this statistic and the conversation with my colleague for the last month, and here is my answer. Or, to be more precise, here are seven reasons as to why anyone should bother with a memory evaluation.

Jeffrey Burns, M.D., director of the University of Kansas Heartland Institute for Clinical and Translational Research’s Participant and Clinical Interactions Resources Program, and its Clinical and Translational Science Unit, and director of the Alzheimer’s and Memory Program, monitors Howard Kemper, a participant in the Brain Aging Project. Image by Donna Peck for the National Center for Advancing Translational Science. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
  1. Knowledge is power. It is a fact of life that changes to memory will occur with age. Those that occur with healthy aging are different from those due to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Rather than worrying about memory loss, it is much better to sort out what is the cause of your memory problems. I can honestly say that almost every patient I see comes away content to know where their memory problems are coming from—even if Alzheimer’s disease is the answer.
  2. Current treatments for memory loss do actually work. The current treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have been shown to turn the clock back on the memory loss by about six to twelve months. This means that you generally see an improvement in your thinking and memory. And they don’t stop working—even as the Alzheimer’s disease progress and thinking and memory deteriorate over time, your memory is almost always better using currently available medications than it would be without them.
  3. Future treatments may significantly slow down Alzheimer’s disease. Over the past ten years, our improved understanding of Alzheimer’s disease has generated new potential treatments that may further improve memory, stop the formation of the amyloid plaques that damage brain cells, or even remove those plaques altogether. These new medications are available now in clinical trials.
  4. Treatments work best when started early. Many studies have shown that the magnitude of improvement is larger when the medications are started early, in the mild stage of disease, rather than waiting until the moderate or severe stages. Additionally, most clinical trials of new medications are only open to those with mild disease.
  5. Physical exercise and proper diet can help. Everyone knows that exercise is good for you, but few people realize how important it is for their memory and brain health. In addition to reducing the risk of strokes, aerobic exercise improves sleep, mood, and memory—it can even promote the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms new memories. In addition, many studies have found that the Mediterranean diet can reduce memory loss.
  6. Strategies and memory aids can help everyone. Whether memory loss is due to normal aging or the start of a brain disease such as Alzheimer’s, everyone can improve their memory using strategies and external memory aids, such as mnemonics, notebooks, calendars, pillboxes, and smartphones.
  7. Participating in memory research or advocacy work can help future generations. Be proactive. Confront your memory problems and find out what is causing them.

Empowered with this knowledge, you will be ready to participate in research, advocacy work, or another endeavor that can help those around you and the next generation.

Featured Image Credit: Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Bourbonnais Saturday, September 29, 2012 by Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

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