We all have heard stories of the ravages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease affecting loved ones—or even witnessed that tragic decline firsthand in a close friend or relative.
It’s heartbreaking. And for those who have lost someone dear to one of these debilitating conditions, witnessing the effects also can be frightening. It’s just human nature to wonder at the first sign of forgetfulness or episode of cloudy thinking, “Could the same thing be happening to me?”
I know the idea of a serious mental disorder is beyond troubling, but I would like to offer some reassurance: The fact is, many, many causes result in our forgetting—and Alzheimer’s and other serious forms of dementia are only a couple of them.
Often, “it slipped my mind” can be explained by much more ordinary—and frequently reversible—factors.
- What kind of problem is this? Do I have Alzheimer’s?
Instead of leaping to horrifying conclusions, let’s look at this question objectively. What’s the difference between brain fog, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and just plain forgetting? Here are some clues:
- Degree and permanence: “Brain fog”—that is, a sense of vagueness or disconnection, slow or unclear thinking, dull feelings, or indecision—is a condition that may last for days or even weeks, but it does go away when its causes (more on those in a minute) are addressed. Dementia, on the other hand, is generally persistent, and in some cases, progressive. Plus, a person who suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s shows cognitive and emotional problems beyond simply missing a detail now and then.
- Pattern: Does a pattern suggest the problem isn’t in your mind? For example, are you consistently detail-oriented…except when it comes to addressing one particular person or task? In these cases, “forgetting” may well be your emotional defense against that trigger, a way of sweeping the problem temporarily under the rug. (Psst. Isn’t it time to face this head on?)
- Brain function: Memory is just one job of a healthy brain. Other brain functions include problem solving, verbal skills, hand-eye coordination, balance, emotional stability, etc. Generally, more than one type of brain function will be affected in individuals with any type of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
Another possibility to consider is depression, which can spark a plethora of symptoms, including memory problems, lack of clarity, and dull thinking. Depression is a common side-condition for many people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, but it also can be present all by itself.
Solutions: Still wondering whether your forgetfulness is cause for concern? Do the sensible thing and see your doctor. A skilled medical professional can identify and address any of these conditions.
- Are you over 40?
Sigh…yes, it’s true, forgetfulness is common as we age. But do take heart. If things are not “slipping your mind” constantly, and if you have no other cognitive symptoms, then a little minor forgetfulness is typically not indicative of a serious problem.
Another age-related cause of memory hiccups: Hormones. You may notice that your recall waxes and wanes along with physical symptoms of hormone imbalance. While bothersome, this is not a cause for alarm.
Solutions: Organization to the rescue—at any age! Build everyday habits and rituals that lift the burden of remembering. For example, always leave keys in that bowl by the front door, or use a planner to remind you of events, shopping lists, etc.
Want to step it up a notch? Add intellectual challenge, physical activity, and social interaction to your routines. One recent study showed that verbal puzzles, conversation, and dancing each benefit cognition—but when done in combination, these routines deliver an even greater mental boost. Fun, fellowship, and fitness all at once? Sign me up!
- Might other simple causes of memory loss be in operation?
Absolutely! Many factors can contribute to occasional memory glitches or brain fog at any age. Do any of these sound familiar?
- poor sleep
- workplace or personal stress
Ahem—about that stress. Women in particular are prone to memory lapses due to sheer overwhelm. Got a dozen different projects and people demanding your attention? Perhaps it’s not so surprising you forgot your sister’s birthday and can’t recall where you left your purse.
Solutions: Self-care is in order. Take steps to minimize irritants in your environment. Rebalance your work/rest ratio. And make a point of consciously disconnecting from stressors… Every. Single. Day.
- What other brain tips can the holistic world offer?
We’ll skip straight to solutions for this one.
The central holistic principle is that the body, mind, and spirit are closely connected. So you won’t be surprised to hear that the “Big 2” lifestyle practices I so often recommend for physical wellness improve mental function too.
- Exercise: Nothing clears the mind and awakens the senses quite like a good workout. And research shows that the mental and energy boost you get from exercise continues even after the workout is over.
- Nutrition: A diet rich in vitamins, iron, and fiber (shopping tip: leafy greens have all three) as well as protein and omega-3 fats is packed with brain fuel. Conversely, just as highly refined carbs, excess sodium, and gluten can result in unpleasant physical effects, they also can trigger brain fog and memory issues.
Need more? Ancient healing wisdom has a lot to offer. Acupuncture can alleviate depression, stress, and other conditions contributing to memory issues, and herbal supplements such as rhodiola and ashwagandha have been used for thousands of years to sharpen focus, improve cognitive function, and elevate mood.
There’s a huge difference between simple, age-related decline (which can be minimized) and dramatically debilitating conditions like Alzheimer’s. I urge you to take a look at what lifestyle factors may be contributing to any forgetfulness you experience, and to take steps to optimize your brain power. Regardless of your stage in life, here’s to you, your continued clarity and focus, and your complete vibrancy, both in body and in mind.