I finished reading Still Alice by Lisa Genova the day before Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as a 50 year old Harvard professor faced with early-onset Alzheimer’s in the movie adaptation. It took me only a day and a half, with many interruptions, to pour through it cover to cover. I couldn’t put it down, and I loved it, in that way you can love something which makes you cringe.
Occasionally, I associate too much with a character in a novel, becoming empathetic to the point of near paralysis. I walked around in an amnesiac fog for 36 hours, but I’m better now. I think.
I do forget things frequently. I’m terrible with names. I lose my phone several times a day, every day. I briefly forget which kids are where, and who has to be picked up when. I can’t remember if I’ve been to a certain restaurant or if I like a certain wine. I blame these memory lapses on the business of life, a mom’s tendency to devote at least part of her brain to each of her children, and poor organization. (I do not blame it on the wine.)
When, though, do normal memory lapses and loss due to aging become a diagnosable disease?
Look for these warning signs:
1. You forget how to do something you have done many times before. Forgetting how to get to your best friend’s house, or struggling to remember how to make your favorite meal can be a tip off to a real problem.
2. You have trouble learning something new. Electronics, computers or card games used to come easy to you, and now, you can’t figure out how to start the new toaster. You used to be handy, and now, you can’t figure out how to put together one of your children or grandchildren’s Christmas presents.
3. You repeat yourself in the same conversation. I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is tuning me out. It can be very frustrating to both the speaker and the listener as it is tempting to say, “Stop talking. You told me this already and if I have to hear about your work-out this routine one more time, someone is going to get hurt!!!” I think I do this a lot, but it is usually very late at night, and the person I am talking to is probably tuning me out.
4. You are having trouble making choices. You stare in the fridge trying to decide what to drink, or you stare at the closet with no idea what to wear. This may be a red flag if it is happening routinely.
5. You can’t keep track of what happens in a day. If you are having an increasingly difficult time remembering if you showered, took out the garbage or went to the food store, you should discuss your concerns with your doctor.
I started each of these warning signs with “you”, but most often, if there is a true diagnosable problem, it will be a friend or family member who will notice first. If someone else tells you that you are losing it — hopefully, they find a more sensitive way to say it — you should probably take it seriously. If you have a loved one whose memory seems to be failing, bite the bullet and tell them you are worried. There are many things that can cause memory loss in addition to dementia, some of which are correctable. There are also treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia that can help to halt the progression of the disease. If you noticed someone was short of breath or was clutching at his or her chest, you would address it. The brain is an organ just like the heart and lungs. It needs to be taken care of.
Speaking of letting people know you are worried about them, I am offering $500 bucks to anyone who tips me off about my intervention.