Aging and Memory Loss: What’s normal, what’s not, and how to seek help (this article appeared in the Daily Camera’s Aging at Altitude Special Section, spring 2022)

Most of us have had “senior moments” where we’ve run into a friend and momentarily forget their name. Or we search the house for eyeglasses that are perched on our head. Or we walk in circles trying to locate our car in the mall parking lot. Those forgetful moments are fairly typical of being a member of the 21st century with a headful of thoughts and responsibilities.

Putting the car keys in the refrigerator might be something you do if you’re distracted, but storing a dozen cans of pineapple in the dishwasher, or forgetting how to drive home are not normal memory slips. These types of forgetfulness could be a sign of cognitive impairment or a dementia. But the latest research is showing that if you treat early signs of mental decline, you can slow down and possibly reverse cognitive decline.

Ilene Naomi Rusk, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist, functional brain health coach, and director of The Healthy Brain Program at the Brain and Behavior Clinic (2523 Broadway #200, Boulder, CO, 303-938-9244). Dr. Rusk acts like a detective to fully understand the root causes of a person’s psychological and brain health issues. Then she works with the patient and a functional medicine team with personalized diagnostics, and treatment or interventions, from brain training to nutrition guidance.

“It’s good for everyone to have baseline neuropsychological testing in mid-life even if you have no memory issues,” says Rusk. Most people think cognition is memory, but it’s much more than that. It’s memory, learning, attention and focus, visual and spatial skills, and how we absorb information, retain it and then share it. Cognition is also how we process things visually, auditorily, and spatially.”

There are different categories of cognitive health versus cognitive impairment that can clue me into whether or not someone is headed towards dementia, says Rusk.

“Subjective Cognitive Impairment (SCI) is when you notice a change in your cognition and think ‘I’m a little different than I used to be’, but other people can’t tell and it wouldn’t show up on a memory test.

“The next category is Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). This is when you notice changes in your thinking and people around you may or may not notice changes. With MCI you might also have some challenges on neuropsychological tests that show empirical changes. This is a staging system,” says Rusk. “With MCI there’s a great opportunity to intervene, and we want to intervene as early as possible because once you have Mild Cognitive Impairment it’s easier to slip into dementia,” she adds.

The best thing is to tell your doctor if you have concerns and then go to see someone to get properly assessed.

“I recommend that people go directly to a neuropsychologist or neurologist after they’ve spoken to their family physician to look for root causes. There are so many prevention strategies and a new functional medicine methodology to approach cognitive decline. Functional Medicine practitioners look at blood sugar control, blood pressure, gut health, latent, mold, infections, inflammatory markers, stress, sleep patterns, chronic loneliness, and trauma. These are all important things when looking at modifiable root causes of cognitive impairment,” says Rusk.

“We no longer think that Alzheimer’s is only a disease of the brain. That’s definitely an endpoint,” she says. “Everything from dental health to herpes is being looked at, and the amyloid theory of Alzheimer’s is even being questioned by some people. I see trauma healing and stress reduction as important interventions. Chronic stress affects so much in our physiology and unhealed trauma leaves physiologic imprints.

 It’s also important to know,” she adds, “that 70% of dementias are of the Alzheimer’s type and 30% of dementias fall into other categories such as Frontal Temporal Dementia, Parkinson’s, Lewy Bodies, etc. getting properly diagnosed is very important.

The brain pathology of Alzheimer’s often starts 20 years before there are clinical signs. “A person goes from no dementia to SCI, MCI, early stages of dementia, mild, moderate, and severe stages,” says Rusk. “My goal is prevention, and my favorite thing to do is talk to young people about brain health. If we can intervene early, the decline can be delayed and even sometimes prevented.”

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.