She could deal with constantly forgetting her shopping list, and she'd made a habit of writing down where she'd parked her car, each and every time. But in her mid-50s, Janis Mara's memory problems started costing her money. Late fees began piling up because she forgot to pay her bills.
"Over time, it really intensified," she says. "I wanted to think I was just getting older, but my fear was that it was Alzheimer's."
"I'm sorry, but there's nothing more we can do."
No patient wants to hear that. No doctor wants to say it. And with good reason: It isn't true.
It is true that in the course of many illnesses, cure ceases to be an option.
But no hope of a sure cure does not mean no hope at all. It certainly does not mean there is nothing more to be done.
When you receive the information that your illness is serious, a palliative care team can help you handle the news and cope with the many questions and challenges...
After bugging her HMO for an MRI, Mara discovered that her lapses weren't anything to worry about. She was simply going through a bit of age-related memory loss.
These annoying senior moments are the result of a decline in brain activity that shows up in your 50s and affects most people older than age 65, according to Kirk Erickson, a psychology postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois who studies the relationship between memory and lifestyle.
Scientists don't know whether age-related memory loss is caused by decreased blood flow to the brain or loss of brain cells; many different brain areas can be affected.
Forgetting people's names, where you left your keys, or what you were doing a moment ago are normal. But forgetting the name of a family member or what those keys are used for is a sign of more serious problems.
You may feel that your brain is turning to goo, but age-related memory loss doesn't keep getting worse. In fact, older folks are actually better than their younger peers at some memory-related tasks, such as crossword puzzles, Erickson says. Plus, you can stop the decline and even reverse some loss.
How? By making positive lifestyle changes -- the same habits that protect your heart, bones, and lungs, Erickson says. And it's never too late. "The brain is relatively malleable," Erickson says, "even into old age."
Erickson recommends these tactics to help keep neurons, nerve cells in the brain, humming:
Exercise: Aerobic training increases the supply of blood to the brain, spurs the development of new neurons, and forges more connections between them. All it takes to benefit is 45 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking, three times a week.