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You don't have to be a senior to have a "senior moment." Dementia can affect those as young as 30. But don't panic, there is a normal amount of memory loss as we age. Sally Armstrong investigates.

As soon as the phone rang at 12:40 p.m., she had that awful gnawing feeling that there was something wrong, and the mistake was likely hers. Sure enough, the voice on the line said, "Are we still on for lunch?" She replied, "Of course we are. I'm slightly delayed. I'll be there in five minutes." Then she raced through the ritual of dressing for lunch, applying makeup, grabbing an umbrella and running out the door for the five minute sprint to the restaurant, thanking her lucky stars that the eatery was close by. But all the while, she was thinking, "How could I have forgotten?" It was a lunch she was looking forward to with two good friends—one of them visiting from out of town. How do you forget a thing like that? She chastised herself all the way to the restaurant—"I should have written it down. Does this mean my brain is turning to mush?"

There are two words that strike terror in the minds of anyone over the age of 55. "I forgot." So why do we forget, and what does it matter? Invariably, when we forget a name or miss an appointment or can't remember a password, we use phrases such as "My Alzheimer's is kicking in" or "I'm having a senior moment." Is that true? How can you tell? And what can you do about forgetting?

Here's the good news. Forgetting is normal. And being more forgetful as you age is also normal. Says Dr. Larry Chambers, scientific adviser to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, "Memory is not the main issue to worry about. Confusion is the issue." It's normal to forget where you left your keys, where you parked your car and what it was you walked upstairs to fetch. It's not normal if you can't find your keys because you put them in the freezer. "As you age, you lose some eyesight, some hearing, some ability to make decisions, some memory. That's aging, not dementia." He says dementia is a combination of a person's lifelong experiences and the impact of those experiences on his or her genes. What most people don't know is you can decrease your chances of developing dementia no matter how old you are.

Forgetting gets serious when you ask the same questions over and over again, when you get lost while shopping and can't find your way home, when you can't follow the plot in a book, when you experience personality changes.

But forgetting is sometimes just the result of information overload. Researchers at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden cite the Internet as an example of overload and claim you can manage four different pieces of information simultaneously. But if you try to manage more, the overload will cause a decline in the efficiency and quality of the mental work you are doing.

So it's wise to keep track of your brain health and to be aware that there are things to do and things to avoid when it comes to preserving cognitive ability. Although you can be forgetful and lose lots of memory, it won't change your life unless it's connected to what the experts call the Big Four. Ask yourself these four questions: Can I drive my car safely? Can I manage my finances? Can I manage my health care and eat nutritiously? Can I live independently?

Dementia not a natural part of aging
The statistics and facts about dementia can make forgetting your mother-in-law's name a walk in the proverbial park. Consider these numbers from the Alzheimer Society.

  • 564,000 Canadians have dementia today. This number is expected to increase to 937,000 by 2031.
  • 65 per cent of those diagnosed with dementia over the age of 65 are women.
  • 25,000 new cases of dementia are diagnosed each year.
  • Age remains the biggest risk factor for dementia. After 65, the risk factor doubles every five years.
  • The annual cost for dementia (direct and indirect) is $10.4 billion. This number is set to jump to $16.6 billion by 2031.

Because we don't talk about it, says Chambers, we don't find better strategies for dealing with it. Dementia is not a natural part of aging, even though age is a huge risk factor. It doesn't affect just "old" people; it can strike people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. But because of the stigma—the idea of being unable to control your own life—dementia is one of the most feared and misunderstood of all chronic diseases. We're still whispering about it rather than shouting at the top of our lungs about funding research, finding a cure and having a national dementia strategy.

Next: Watch for these seven modifiable risk factors

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