"If you want to manage it, you need to measure it". That's one of my wellbeing mantras. Recently a few of my friends seem to be having a midlife wellbeing crisis. They are worried they are losing their memory. The recall isn't as good as it used to be, names that were once sharp as a tack are stored deep in the hard drive and their Google brain is slowing down.
Memory storage and retrieval is a complicated, fascinating process beyond the word limitations of this article. Losing your memory and processing power can be a frightening process so the trick is to work out if it is pathological or not. Your first step should be to make an appointment with your family doctor to get some simple tests.
There a number of causes of memory loss, such as medications, alcoholism, minor head injury, vitamin B12 deficiency, mood disorders and low thyroid. Your doctor can confirm or rule out a number of these with a history, examination, blood and neuro-psychometric testing. Brain diseases such as dementia are certainly top of most people's minds when you mention memory loss, and Alzheimer's is the dreaded word for good reason.
There are several causes of dementia, Alzheimer's is just one of them. One of the more common causes of dementia, but lesser known, is Multi-infarct dementia. That's just a flash word for lots of small strokes that gradually rob you of your brain's hardware. This may be diagnosed by tests such as a brain MRI. It's the usual suspects of smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol that cause the narrowing of arteries and clots in your brain's plumbing. Parts of your brain die through a series of events you may not notice.
So, what's the point of measuring your mental wellbeing? The simple answer is so you can find out what the problem is, and fix it. The sooner you find out if you have a problem or not, you can relax and get on with life, or get on and fix the problem before it gets worse. Chances are, your anxiety may be the problem and most perception of memory loss is not actually a pathological problem and you can get on with life rather than worrying about it.
In the unlikely event you or your loved ones do have a disease process affecting your memory you want to find out if its reversible, or if you at least you can slow the process down. The longer you leave it the more chance it won't be reversible or be able to be slowed down.
Alzheimer's is a classic example of this. When you or someone you know or love suspects Alzheimer's disease, get to your doctor for some screening tests. If you don't it's like noticing your house is on fire and not calling the fire brigade. Don't whisper the word behind the loved one's back. Face up, front up and get on with it. There is no one test yet for Alzheimer's so if the screening tests show some memory or cognitive problems you will need further investigation.
While it may not be the diagnosis you want, once it's made you will need to embrace it – because it's not going away. There are medications that can slow the process down so you maintain a quality of life before the avalanche comes. These meds may also slow the process down until a cure is found. There is only one way to find out. Unless you measure it, you can't manage it.
Written by Dr Tom Mulholland. Republished with permission of Stuff.co.nz.