The Neal side of our family, unfortunately, has a history of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease that has been growing lately. Mom and Grandma Neal had dementia, Uncle Gilbert had Alzheimer’s, and my great-aunt, who another relative described as “crazy as a bedbug” when I was a kid, had mental problems so debilitating that she was put into a care facility at about the time she reached retirement age.
When you’ve got such a history in the family, and seen what these terrible degenerative brain diseases can do to bright, kind, loving people, you can’t help but wonder if there is a gene lurking somewhere in your DNA mix that will ultimately turn you down that same dark street. And, you also pause at every instance of forgetfulness and ask yourself whether it is a sign that the dreaded downhill slide has begun.
It’s important to remember that an infallible memory is not part of the normal human condition. With the richness of daily experience flooding our brains with new memories during every waking moment, it’s entirely normal to not remember every incident or person from the past with perfect clarity. And the memory failure that most frequently causes people to question whether they’re losing it — the mental block that leaves you temporarily unable to recall a name, or a word — is commonplace in healthy, average humans. Other normal issues include the tendency to forget facts or events over time, absent-mindedness, and having a memory influenced by bias, experiences or mood.
Fortunately, too, there are tests that can be taken that can help doctors distinguish between these ordinary conditions and the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s. The tests range from simple screening tests of cognitive functioning that can be given by a family doctor as part of an annual exam and completed in a few minutes to intense and extensive neuropsychological examinations that involve multiple days of evaluation.
The existence of such tests raises an interesting question. Aging Americans are routinely poked, prodded, and scanned for heart disease, cancers and other bodily ailments. Even though, for many of us, the prospect of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is as dreaded as any finding of a debilitating physical disease, there seems to be less of a focus on early detection and treatment of degenerative mental diseases. With recent studies showing that significant percentages of older Americans are afflicted with dementia, shouldn’t that approach change? Why shouldn’t a short cognitive screening test be as much a part of the annual physical as the rubber-gloved prostate probe?