When to take absentmindedness more seriously

Lady with string on finger
Jul 24,2013

Cognitive decline, a dreaded but expected sign of aging, presents definitive signals to loved ones, co-workers and care providers — and ourselves — as the decades increase.

“It is really important to recognize that there are changes in our cognitive acuity that happen normally and are to be expected as we age,” said Robert Fallows, PsyD, Samaritan Health Services’ first neuropsychologist. “There are many changes in how the brain works and the efficiencies in which we learn information throughout our lives and some of our attention capabilities diminish as we age.”

On the flip side, Fallows said there are also changes and improvements in our verbal intelligence as we grow older. “As we age and learn more, we become wiser and our ability to manage that information improves,” he said.

However, concerns rise for a number of reasons — usually brought to the attention of a primary care provider by a family member or a close friend. According to Fallows, dementia becomes more prevalent after age 60.

“At 65, five to eight percent of the population shows signs of dementia.
At age 75, 15 to 20 percent show symptoms, and at age 85,
30 to 50 percent show cognitive decline,” said Fallows.

Fallows encourages people to watch for these specific red flags for cognitive decline:

  • A person may have difficulty completing complex tasks in his or her daily life, like getting lost driving to familiar places, mismanaging the sequence of ingredients in a recipe or forgetting things cooking on a stove.
  •  Dementia can also show changes in behavior — a person may become secluded and isolative, or more abrasive or disinhibited in his or her behavior.

When signs of cognitive decline creep into a person’s everyday behavior, Fallows encourages an immediate appointment with a primary care physician.

“There are many things that may affect our cognitive abilities, including vitamin levels, thyroid and other medical reasons,” said Fallows. “A complete medical workup with comprehensive lab tests is often followed by a referral to a neuropsychologist or neurologist for evaluation and recommendations.”

Robert Fallows, PsyD, is a neuropsychologist with Samaritan Mental Health.

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