Everyone experiences senior moments, or lapses in memory or concentration that grow more common as we age. But how can we tell if something is just a senior moment, or a warning sign for something bigger, like dementia?

An excerpt from Dr. Catherine Cruikshank’s interview on ABC7 SWFL. Watch the original video below:

Catherine on ABC7

How do you know if forgetfulness is a sign of dementia?

A senior moment is a term we throw around to laugh things off. But, we can have “senior moments” at any age – teenagers, twenties, thirties, and so on. An example is when we walk into our bedroom and think, “Why did I come in here?” We may walk back out to the living room and realize, “Oh, I walked in there to get a pair of socks because my feet were cold.” You remember a minute later.

For someone who is experiencing a more significant issue, they will have a much harder time remembering what they were looking for. Or, they may get easily distracted with something else and forget they were even looking for it at all. 

But, what’s really important for people to understand is that with dementia, it is not just about memory. It can also be a change in behavior, a change in personality, an unusual reaction to something. 

Yes, we know that memory loss is the most significant sign, but we also need to know what’s normal for that person and how they are deviating from the norm. 

A lot of people with early signs of dementia know something is different. A lot of people will report that it is a different type of forgetfulness. 

It is also important to understand that with dementia – and Alzheimer’s as the most common example – the early stages are very subtle, and they don’t happen everyday. You do not lose everything all at once. It takes months and years for it to become noticeable and a weekly or daily issue. So, by the time someone has progressed that far, it can be three to five to several years down the road before they actually get to a doctor. 

For the person experiencing the memory issue, it is important for them to be honest with themselves. Because if they want treatment, the current medications work best earlier on. And if they are willing to participate in a clinical trial, the trials are looking for people in earlier stages so they can help heal and prevent the progress of the disease as early as possible.

Is it normally the person themselves that first recognizes the warning signs of dementia? Or is it a loved one or spouse?

It can be both. Most people experiencing it will report that it was different. It felt like a different type of forgetfulness, almost like it was erased completely from their brain.

For spouses, immediate family, and close friends, they would notice that something was different. They may not be able to put their finger right on it, but it was different, and it sticks with them. They may not be able to explain or describe it, but it caught their attention as being different – either with the memory issue, or changes in speech, vocabulary, how a person communicates, changes in writing. If things in an email or handwritten note are different, word choices are different, sentence structures are different (written or verbal), that is something else we want to look at. 

A lot of people think it is just memory, but it is more than that. You are really looking at how a person is deviating from the norm.  

father and son talking outside

How can someone with a family member going through this begin to address it? It’s a tough topic to bring up.

It is. I often suggest to spouses, family, and friends to make notes on what you have seen. It is not a bad thing. Bringing it up to the person, you do not necessarily want to be confrontational. That puts everyone on the defensive. You may want to say, “Are you feeling okay? You haven’t been quite yourself.” 

Or, even use humor. Pretend you have lost something yourself, and say, “Oh my goodness, I’d lose my head if it wasn’t attached to my shoulders. Do you ever have days like that?” Use humor to see if they will open up and be more forthcoming.

Can someone be tested for dementia? 

Yes. If you do notice signs of dementia, and you have somebody who is at least willing to get tested, there are some accurate and great tests that you can get early on, and the sooner the better.

Typically the primary care physician would start with a memory screen, and hopefully encourage and refer that patient to a neurologist. You really want to see a specialist in this field, and then there are other tests a person would go through.

senior woman seeing the doctor

What other factors could be causing memory loss?

You want to rule out other issues. Is it mismedication, the number one cause for mild cognitive impairment (MCI) in our society? Make sure the medications a person is taking are appropriate dosages for them, and that they are not doubling up on a medication. Rule that out.

Is there an infection, like a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) or another type of infection? Correct that and see if the person goes back to normal. 

Dehydration. It is very big, especially with seniors. It is not just about drinking fluids. You want to drink water to flush out your system. Water is the best thing you can drink. 

To get in touch with Dr. Catherine Cruikshank about memory concerns and senior guidance in Florida, visit FloridaSeniorConsulting.com or call (800) 969-7176

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