Senior man shopping for groceries looking forgetfulWhat baby boomer doesn’t consider Alzheimer’s when we begin to forget more than usual? Because we know that cognitive decline is one of the very first indicators of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a slight, but noticeable decline in a person’s memory or thinking patterns.

Anyone who has ever had too much to drink understands the idea of “black holes in a conversation.” But it’s frightening when we experience these “holes” without drinking.. It’s disconcerting to have frequent lapses in memory — forgetting big things and small things alike, or only being able to recall something once reminded of an incident. These are known as memory amnesiatic indicators.

These signs of cognitive decline in the elderly can easily be brushed off as a “normal” symptom of the aging process by both family members, and even medical professionals. However, when combined with other factors, it can be indicative of the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease or another type of  dementia.

Other non-amnesiatic indicators of cognitive decline occur when a person notices that he or she is not making very good decisions anymore. For instance, a person may decide to go to the grocery store to pick up ice cream and then decide to go to the farmer’s market to pick up vegetables, leaving the ice cream to melt in the car.


Self-Awareness and Subjective Cognitive Decline

These types of episodes can be frightening for people aware that their brains are changing. This is known as subjective cognitive decline (SCD). In addition to these changes in the brain and thinking patterns, SCD is accompanied by a frightening awareness of these changes, often years before anyone else around them begins to notice these changes.

Individuals who pre-report themselves as experiencing these signs of cognitive decline are twice as likely to test positive for beta-amyloids, a sticky protein that builds plaques in the fatty membrane around nerve cells. These plaques block synapse signals between cells. Beta-amyloids are a precursor protein and a contributing factor to the development of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Once a diagnosis is present, some prescription drugs can delay the symptoms, but they cannot stop the progression. Early self-reporting is crucial in light of the number of clinical trials currently underway. Early self-reporting means that clinical trials can begin as early as possible. This is helpful for the individual and for advancement in the field.  Treatment trials may include simple lifestyle changes in the way of diet and exercise. Others may involve new medications.

Failure to self-report denies the individual hope and delays future solutions.  Do not put your concerns aside.  You may think, “No, I’m just terrified and attributing my fear to little things such as not remembering where I put my keys or forgetting appointments.” But you know yourself better than anyone else does.


A Personal Perspective

Discovering these changes is especially frightening and poignant for individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s Disease.

In my family, I was the caretaker for years — caring for both my (paternal) grandfather and my mother, each of whom had Alzheimer’s Disease. My grandfather died in 1982 at the age of 89. At that time, dementia was viewed as merely a condition of aging. However, by the time my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, more medical and scientific information was readily available.

Within the past two years, I have begun to notice changes in my own brain. I notice these changes become more pronounced when under stress and that fewer distractions allow me to think more clearly. However, I am, admittedly, terrified, given my family history, to understand what it means. The odds are, 1 in 2, that I will be twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease myself down the road.

However, I have come to terms with this fact by becoming educated and stepping away from the fear. I accept that “it will be what it’s going to be.” I can’t ignore it, but I choose to use my time wisely. By self-reporting, I can be diagnosed earlier and used in trials. I can be a participant in moving science forward. Despite many tearful, worry-filled nights, I take comfort in knowing the benefit of seeing these changes in myself and reporting them with the hope of finding a cure, or more effective treatment, for Alzheimer’s Disease.

The vast majority of people don’t report the signs of cognitive decline to their doctor. However, when you start “thinking differently,” it’s time to begin acting differently — and doing your part to help halt the progression of this disease.  By doing so, I have gained some peace. I hope that you do too.

Image credit: Deposit Photos/lisafx


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