Once you cross the age of 60, each time that you can’t locate your house keys, car keys, or your reading glasses, thoughts of dementia may begin flitting around in your head. You may feel uneasy with each occurrence that implies a lapse of memory, whether yours or that of a loved one. An incident comes to mind from a visit to a relative’s home some time ago. We had just finished a meal and my cousin began clearing the table. My eyes followed her as she opened the fridge and carefully placed in it an empty serving bowl along with its soiled spoon. Then, she followed up by depositing the butter-dish, with about three days’ worth of good butter, among the dirty dishes in the sink. It isn’t farfetched for such an episode to stir up concerns about dementia. Except that it didn’t, because this particular event happened decades ago when my cousin was nine years old, and I was slightly older. We knew it was a switcheroo, and fell over laughing, though her mother was not amused. Butter was expensive. Decades have passed since then, and there is no evidence that the incident was an early precursor for dementia. It was my first example of watching absentmindedness at work. What’s even more relevant is that I remember that scene more vividly than I can remember what I ate for lunch yesterday. A reminder that when our long-term memory outscores our short-term memory, that too can be listed among scary dementia symptoms. The reversal is simply an illustration of how the brain works after it has been saturated with crucial and trivial information for more than half a century.
Separate Absentmindedness from the More Serious Signs of Memory Loss
The most likely explanation of why that age-old encounter popped into my mind may be connected to a more recent experience. I had reason lately to use eye-drops as well as ear-drops during the same period of time, and mastered the routine of applying both, each to its relevant body part. But on one of those days as I tilted my chin upwards to get the correct angle for the eyedrops, I caught a quick glimpse of the vial in my hand and stopped short of putting eardrops in my eye. It was a split second save, staving off consequences that would have outweighed by far the ‘butter in the sink’ story. The outcome from putting the wrong remedy in my eyes would have been even more dire than the hilarity that followed a different and more comical scene later on. It was only slightly embarrassing when I found myself searching frantically throughout the house for my cellphone while at the same time lamenting to my friend on the other end of the said cell phone that I couldn’t find my phone. An example of another entry that can be listed on the dementia symptoms schedule. However, it is important to separate absentmindedness from the more serious signs of memory loss. Understandably, these events trigger alarm, and each lapse of memory seems to warn of dementia. But to borrow the opening line from the great opera Porgy and Bess, “It Ain’t Necessarily So!”
You Can Examine Your Personal Risk for Dementia
A basic truth is that any of us can be afflicted with anything at any time, with or without warning. Nonetheless, research on Dementia so far reveals that not everyone will get dementia, even though aging correlates with its arrival. It’s useful to examine, what is your personal risk for getting dementia? WHO statistics break down the risk by age group. If you are between 65 and 70, the risk is one in 50. This means that if you are in a group of 50 people of that age group who are randomly gathered together, only one of you out of the 50 will develop dementia. Risk doubles very 5 years after that. If you are between 70 and 75, the odds are one in 25. If you are between 75 and 80, your odds are one in 12; and if you are between 80 and 90, your odds are one in six. It is also known that other mitigating circumstances cause the risk to lean towards individuals with a combination of influences such as: family history of dementia; lifestyle factors as regards nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress; environmental exposures in the form of toxic chemicals and pollution; and an individual health history that multiplies risk. As human beings, we are not just a bunch of statistics. But while dementia is real, the odds are that many of you can live your life without the worrying. This doesn’t mean that you ignore absentmindedness. The possibility exists that you can mindlessly do yourself harm if my ‘ear-drops as eye-drops’ scare is any indicator of how close we can come to an undesirable outcome. It’s important to be knowledgeable and make healthy living adjustments to minimize hazards of absentmindedness while also lessening unnecessary stress and anxiety about the risks of dementia.
It’s Normal to Forget Things Once in a While As We Get Older
There are two important points to bear in mind about what you may wrongly self-diagnose as memory loss. Firstly, memory loss is not the only sign of dementia; and secondly, the type of memory loss that is associated with dementia is not the same as absentmindedness. It’s normal to forget things once in a while as we get older. No harm, no foul. Absentmindedness can be part of a quirky personality which gets more pronounced as a person ages. Or absentmindedness may make its first appearance as a sign of getting older and not necessarily a symptom of disease. Another word is Mindlessness – the inattentiveness or a disconnect between your memory and attention. Absentmindedness is a lapse in conscious behavior. Brain scientists tell us that for most of our actions throughout our lives, the subconscious is really in charge, coordinating a behind-the-scenes chorus of in-and-out messages like an expert orchestra conductor. Therefore, we do not really learn to exert energy on conscious decisions. As an aside, it is one of the reasons people find psychotherapy to be challenging; it demands conscious decision-making – and it is hard work. As we get older, our automated electrical connections are overloaded and sluggish forcing us to consciously write the scripts of our daily lives and pay more attention from one action to another. You can no longer take for granted that your brain will instantly recall where you left your wallet. A similar disconnect may happen when you can’t find it though it is right in front of you. But if you walk away, give it some time, return to the same spot, there is your wallet. The brain-hand-eye-coordination that was needed for me to recognize eye-drops from ear-drops and pick up the right one, was slower than usual. In a case like that I needed to pay more attention.
Concentrate the Mind on the Present Moment
There are some things we can do about absentmindedness. Practicing Mindfulness is an important one. A quote from Buddha reminds us to “Concentrate the mind on the present moment.” Like therapy, it can seem like hard work, because we would prefer to have a more relaxed approach into aging. We have a choice of allowing absentmindedness to define all of who we are as we age or tweak our life management regimen a bit to lessen the potential perils. It’s fine to accept absentmindedness as an entertaining side-bar of daily activities. But it’s dangerous to allow yourself to be distracted by a phone call and forget to turn off the stove. Observe the theatre of your own life and make corrections to address actions that are more frightening than funny. To retrieve stuff quickly, make a point of placing certain items such as keys, glasses, cellphone in the same spot each time. The plan should be shared among other people in the household. If you drive, take note of where you park before you walk away from the car. It’s a good idea to write it down or take a picture of the surroundings. And even though you may have cooked or baked or repaired stuff for years without forgetting the list of items needed, or the methods and procedures, it’s likely that now you have to make a checklist beforehand. Talk to yourself about each planned action, although it isn’t wise to do that too loudly which may invite an intervention from the people who come with the straight-jackets.
Learn to Laugh at Yourself
Admittedly, there can be some surprising feelings of freedom that emanate from the carefree nature of absentmindedness as long as you are not in jeopardy. If you think that it is important to you to remember all your great-nieces and nephews by name, then develop a system for doing so. At the same time, you can shrug off the lapses if you don’t really care to know Ariana Grande or Billie Eilish or Lil Nas by name or identify them in a picture. By all means, get a professional medical opinion if you are having problems identifying basic items you are supposed to recognize. And seek help if your memory lapse results in your getting lost in previously familiar places, or if known faces no longer register with you. Otherwise continue taking care of your body, mind, soul, and spirit. Give yourself a break and learn to laugh at yourself when you realize that you left home wearing two unmatched sides of shoes. You’ve earned the privilege.