Is it Alzheimer’s or just age-related memory loss?

Maintaining brain health is key to preventing memory loss. Getty Images

Everyone has those moments when they can’t remember where they put their keys or why they wandered into a particular aisle at the grocery store, but at a certain age, how can you tell the difference between regular memory loss and the signs of Alzheimer’s?

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“When you forget where you’ve placed your keys, for example, it’s likely because you absentmindedly tossed them somewhere when you walked in the door and were already thinking about something else when you did it,” says Mary Schulz, education director of the Alzheimer Society of Canada. “We forget things like that because we’re not focusing on the task at hand.”

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That forgetfulness becomes worrisome, however, when it starts to interfere with your day-to-day life.

Schulz draws examples like forgetting which order socks and shoes go on (i.e. socks first, then shoes), or the sequence to brushing your teeth. In the case of those regular forgetful scenarios, like misplacing your keys, it’s a flag when the keys turn up somewhere completely illogical, like the freezer.

“Situations like that will get in the way of your daily functions and they’ll be difficult to unravel,” she says.

Over half a million Canadians are living with dementia today, including Alzheimer’s which is the most common form of the disease. Contrary to what some may believe, dementia is not a natural part of aging — approximately 16,000 are people under the age of 65 — however, the risk factor doubles every five years after 65.

Memory loss signs related to Alzheimer’s

The Alzheimer Society of Canada has a list of things to look out for that could signify an on-set of the disease. In addition to the aforementioned misplacing of items (keys in the freezer) and difficulty performing everyday tasks, they also list problems with language, disorientation, impaired judgement, problems with abstract thinking, severe mood swings, changes in personality and loss of initiative.

READ MORE: Poor sleep linked to memory problems in older adults

“It’s important to see a family physician if anything out of the ordinary persists because it’s a sign of early cognitive impairment — and things can be done about that, pharmacologically and in other domains,” Schulz says.

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In addition, these symptoms may not signify dementia at all.

“If I have a frail parent who’s becoming very confused, I don’t have to jump to the conclusion that it’s dementia. It could be an undiagnosed urinary tract infection that’s throwing her into a state of delirium. And that’s treatable.”

Brain health is important

While age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s, it is possible to exhibit signs as early as your 40s or 50s.

Evidence shows changes in the brain that lead to dementia can happen as early as 25 years before the signs exhibit themselves, which is why it’s important to exercise your brain.

The Mayo Clinic offers some easy ways to keep your memory sharp, including doing crossword puzzles and playing other games, keeping active, socializing regularly, organizing tasks and appointments, sleeping and eating well, and managing chronic conditions.

READ MORE: These are the nine risk factors for dementia that you probably didn’t know about

Unfortunately, Shulz says, the only genetic test that exists is for people who are at high risk for familial dementia, meaning you have multiple family members who were diagnosed with the disease at a young age. But this only makes up seven per cent of people with dementia. For the rest, it comes down to keeping an eye out for warning signs and doing your best to stay healthy.

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“We’d like to get into the early detection mode with dementia, like we do with cancer, since the earlier we detect changes, the earlier we can intervene.”

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