The occasional “senior moments” of forgetting the name of a place or acquaintance, misplacing your wallet/watch, and missing an appointment now and again are nuisances. But how do you know when it is time for you or a loved one to see a physician? Dr. Rosemary Laird Medical Director for the Health First Aging Services offers insight on the subject.

As we age the brain changes (just as every other part of us changes.) Almost universally we all get a bit slower physically and mentally. But for 50 % of us we retain just about the same intellectual abilities all through life that we had when we were a younger adult. The occasional “senior moments” are nuisance events. Dementia, on the other hand, is an illness in which the brain changes so much that the intellectual capabilities decline significantly sometimes along with changes in abilities, personality, and emotions. In about 50% of the cases, it is not “just because you are getting older” as is often said. There are medical issues that can masquerade as or contribute to memory loss that need to be looked for.

“If you clearly detect a change in intellect, memory, personality or emotional stability you should be see for full evaluation at your Primary Care doctor,” recommends Dr. Laird Medical Director for the Health First Aging Services. “Or this would be a good time for a visit to a Geriatric specialist.”

Since it can be very difficult to decide if there has been significant change, Dr. Laird advises everyone from 65 ages and up to get an annual memory screening test. Your primary care physician can administer it or free screenings are offered in places around town. “Here in our area, The East Central Florida Memory Disorder Clinic offers free screenings throughout the year.”

If you sense a clear change in a parent’s or other family member’s memory, Dr. Laird recommends starting to observe how they manage certain tasks.

Early symptoms of dementia can include changes in abilities with financial management, medications, or personal appointments. Other early signs to watch for include a change in emotions such as new onset of depression or a change in the way they spend their time.

“Of course you can also gently ask them if they have noticed any changes. In my clinic I often open the conversation with a comment about my own ‘senior moments’ or a need to write notes to ‘keep track of everything.’ This sometimes disarms them from feeling self conscious and they may open up to you about it.”

If this happens and they are open to it patients can be referred by their primary care provider or refer themselves to see one of the Geriatricians of Aging Services. For others this line of discussion is very frightening and they may even wonder about your motives. If you encounter resistance try pointing out your concerns to the Primary Care Provider who may be able to evaluate memory. You might also suggest a general wellness assessment with the Geriatricians. This comprehensive evaluation will include memory testing.

During the course of that evaluation a memory assessment will be included. Other options include taking advantage of free screenings available in the community. The East Central Florida Memory Disorder Clinic offers them periodically throughout the year.

If a person has concerns about memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease, the East Central Florida Memory Disorder Clinic provides a free brief memory screen by appointment (321) 434-7612, press 1. The screening will not provide a diagnosis but is a good first step if questioning whether memory changes are normal or not. Health First Aging Services: Merritt Island 220 S. Courtenay Parkway, (321) 868-5815  |  Melbourne 3661 S. Babcock Street, Melbourne, (321) 434-7611

Farah Sivolella, MSG and Executive Director of East Central Florida Memory Disorder Clinic answered some common questions about preventing memory loss 

What are some exercises (physical or mental) people can do at home to improve memory or prevent memory loss?

There is a strong link between physical activity such as walking, biking, or swimming – any type of exercise that gets blood flow to the brain increases the health of both the brain and body.  What is good for your heart is typically good for your brain – so start off slow – talk with your physician first and increase your physical activity a little each day.

Keeping your brain active – mental activities such as learning new things or pursuing activities that are intellectually stimulating can help preserve cognitive function.

Staying socially connected with friends, family, and community groups can be an important predictor of brain health.  Social support often facilitates new learning and can help people manage stress – so stay engaged.  Social isolation is associated with greater cognitive decline and other health issues.

Are any foods good for your memory? 

According to research funded through the National Institute on Aging, people who ate a  “Mediterranean diet” – vegetables, legumes, fruits, fish, olive oil, and low amounts of saturated fat, dairy products, meat, and poultry had a 28% lower risk of developing Mild Cognitive Impairment and 48% lower risk of progressing from Mild Cognitive Impairment to Alzheimer’s disease.  Studies have found that diets rich in green leafy and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, are associated with reduced rates of cognitive decline. It is also important to limit saturated fats and refined carbohydrates.

Does sleep affect memory and/or concentration?

Getting enough sleep helps you stay healthy and alert.  Even as you age, your body needs about 7-9 hours of sleep a night so your body and brain can repair.  Sleep apnea, a disorder primarily characterized by frequent pauses in breathing during sleep, increases the risk of cognitive impairment and other health issues.