Most of us are afraid of getting Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia. It’s a frightening condition – one that can destroy your ability to grocery shop, cook, drive or travel alone and ultimately erase your precious memories of family and friends.
So, when you forget where you put your keys or have a problem recalling someone’s name, you may begin worrying that you’re sliding into Alzheimer’s disease. But before you grow anxious, you should know that researchers have gone beyond common “senior moments” to identify three specific kinds of memory lapse that are early warning signs of dementia.
Researchers recently began new studies to identify “normal” memory slips from other, more serious, memory mistakes that could be a sign of brain disease.
Their studies identified three kinds of cognitive issues that are like alarms for your brain health. If any of these are happening to you or someone you love, pay immediate attention.
Do You Have Serious Trouble Remembering Faces?
The first troubling sign that your brain health may be sliding involves difficulties with facial recognition and a weakened ability for facial memorization.
Research shows that the areas of the brain used for remembering and processing other people’s faces go through significant changes in structure and function in people who have mild cognitive impairment – MCI, a condition that often leads to Alzheimer’s disease.
A study in Japan took a closer look at how facial recognition changes in people with MCI. They found that their ability to recall faces slips even as their ability to recognize other objects – such as houses – doesn’t seem to change that much.1
The scientists also discovered that the way folks with impaired cognition looked at faces differed from people with normal memories.
For example, while the people who did not have MCI primarily focused on the eyes and the area around the eyes, the cognitively-impaired people looked more at the mouth and the lower part of the faces they were trying to remember.
“Looking at the eyes is important for remembering the entirety of the face,” says researcher Kaoru Sekiyama. “MCI patients probably have an abnormality in the cognitive processing of faces due to the deterioration of brain function. It is possible that the distributed gaze pattern is compensation for this decreased function.”
Keeping Track of Your Money
Problems in handling your finances and keeping track of your money can be a second early sign of dementia.
Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham performed a year-long study to test the money skills of more than 160 older people – about half of whom had MCI. The research team examined how well participants could count coins, make supermarket purchases, balance a checkbook, interpret a bank statement, get bills ready to mail, and recognize when an offer for a loan or other transaction was most likely a scam.
At the end of the year, 31 percent of people with MCI had developed Alzheimer’s disease. And these were the people who had the lowest financial abilities at the start of the research and whose money skills had significantly declined during the study.2 All of the people with normal memories at the start of the study retained their financial skills and their cognitive abilities throughout the research.
“Our findings show that declining money management skills are detectable in patients with MCI in the year prior to developing Alzheimer’s disease,” says researcher Daniel Marson.
Dr. Marson and his fellow researchers also warn that if any of your family members have memory issues, you should keep a close eye on their finances.
Driving Skills On the Decline
The third early sign of dementia is most certainly a touchy subject among many older people: Losing the ability to drive a car safely.
To study this phenomenon, researchers at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health compiled analyses of driving data from about 3,000 seniors – all recorded using artificial intelligence and a computer program wired into people’s cars that measured things like “hard braking events.”
The study found that combining information about people’s health, age and driving skills enabled forecasts of impending Alzheimer’s disease and other declines in cognition to be 88 percent accurate.3
“Driving is a complex task involving dynamic cognitive processes and requiring essential cognitive functions and perceptual motor skills. Our study indicates that naturalistic driving behaviors can be used as comprehensive and reliable markers for mild cognitive impairment and dementia,” says researcher Guohua Li.
If you’ve encountered any of these three difficulties, consider analyzing your daily habits to see what you can add or take away to better support your brain health.
For example, clean up your diet – more fruits and vegetables and less (or no) processed food. Ditch the sugar. Make exercise – even if it’s just walking around your neighborhood – a daily habit. Stay in regular touch with friends and family. Don’t skimp on sleep. And don’t let stress run you ragged.
If I’ve learned nothing else in my years investigating how to sharpen memory as you age, it’s that focusing on positive lifestyle changes will help your brain function better in the long run.