It Takes a Crisis to Confront Memory Impairment

Fear of Memory Loss

Posted Apr 06, 2012

Memory impairment amongst older adults is woefully under diagnosed. Routine screening would catch many cases of memory impairment that currently slip through the cracks. Cost-effective screening methods exist and are easy to employ.

Unfortunately, many cases of memory impairment are not caught until a catastrophe happens. A car crash. A fire. Financial ruin. Or until the repetitive questions are just too severe to ignore anymore. At that point, everyone is ready to sit up and take notice.

So why not earlier? Why do we need an emergency to confront the sad truth that an individual has suffered memory decline?

There is entrenched reluctance in western society to confront cognitive impairment. Cognitive capacities are held in such high regard that embarrassment and anxiety surround the suggestion that one’s faculties are failing.

In short, we are all happier to avoid the issue. Physicians minimize memory complaints from older patients and reinforce the myth that memory impairment is a normal part of aging. Families and patients accept these ideas.

Whereas it is true that memory changes with age, it is not true that memory impairment is normal. The biggest change in memory with normal aging is decline in the ability to retrieve information from your memory stores.

What is your neighbor’s name? Where did we eat last night?? I know it! But I can’t recall it at the moment.

Ever know that you know something but you just cannot access the information at the moment? That is a retrieve deficient. The information is stored in memory, it is there in a file somewhere, so there is no memory loss. Retrieval deficits are frustrating but the information will come back to you at one point or another. Usually when it is least useful.

Memory impairment is a different beast. It is most often indicated by a decreased ability to learn new information. That is, new information cannot get into memory; cannot be filed away. Repetitive questions are an indication of memory impairment.

It is critical to understand these issues but it is more important for us, as a society, to address our profound fear of memory loss. We need more dialogue. The emotional issues need to be addressed. That is, the anxiety, worry, and avoidance deserve conversation and so does the “sweeping under the rug” of this whole business; eventually, that rug is going to catch fire.

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