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Identifying Early Changes In Cognition

Jul 10 2020

by Candace Williams, WellQor Behavioral Health

Watching your parents grow older can be a difficult process. As elderly loved ones age, changes in cognition are likely to occur. However, these changes are often part of the normal aging process, and it’s important to know the difference between normal and abnormal changes in cognition.

Maintaining Brain Health for Older Adults

For normal aging, it’s typical to see some changes in memory and other mild impairments to cognition. You might notice that it will take longer for your parents to learn a new skill, remember a story or that they get easily distracted while doing so. So long as these symptoms aren’t frequent and severe enough to disrupt everyday life, they can be considered normal for an older adult. To keep the brain healthy, it’s important to make sure that our parents are taken care of mentally and physically. Here are some good habits that will help anybody maintain regular brain health:

  • Regular Sleep:
    • Ask if your parents are getting seven to eight hours of sleep per night. A healthy brain needs this time to recharge. Oftentimes, television or highly stimulating activities right before bed can interfere with our sleep cycle.
  • Good diet:
    • Fried, fatty foods will not contribute to good brain health. Moving towards a “whole foods” diet with portioned grains, fruits and vegetables will help the brain meet its full potential.
  • Exercise:
    • Physical activity is good for the body and the mind. Playing to your parents’ interests with outdoor games or even regular walks will help maintain stamina and stimulate the mind.

How to Spot Red Flags

While changes to cognitive function can be normal for older adults, there are some red flags to watch out for that might tell you your loved one is suffering from a more serious condition. Specifically, it’s important to watch out for drastic changes that greatly affect their ability to complete daily tasks or do the things they love. Your parents might present red flags like:

  • Regularly repeating themselves without knowing;
  • Needing reminders for essential tasks;
  • Problems balancing a checkbook;
  • Only recalling the distant past;
  • Not remembering events one to three days afterwards;
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, events or social interactions;
  • Forgetting appointments;
  • Weight loss; and
  • Personality changes.

What to do When You’re Concerned

While these red flags can be helpful in identifying early problems and significant changes in cognition, it’s important to recognize that each person’s brain is going to react differently to aging. What you can do is look for inconsistencies in your parent’s behavior. If your mom is regularly losing her house key but has done that for as long as you can remember, this is likely not a red flag. However, if she has always been a great storyteller and good speaker, but suddenly begins to tell the same story multiple times without knowing she is repeating herself, this might be a sign of more serious brain health issues. If you begin to notice any of these red flags, you should encourage your parent to:

  • Visit their primary care provider:
    • Your primary care provider can rule out any physical ailments or lifestyle issues that might be affecting your loved one’s cognition. If they suspect there is an issue with brain health and abnormal changes in cognition, they can refer your parent to a number of skilled professionals, such as the clinical psychologists at WellQor. From there, they can determine the root cause of cognitive decline, and develop a treatment plan to help your parent preserve their way of life and cope with the aging process. 
  • Know who to call for help:
    • Make sure that your parent has contacts they can reach out to if they need it, and that these contacts are physically written in places they won’t forget. Sticky notes on the fridge, or a list on their phone can help ensure they have access to a support network if needed.
  • Stay mentally active:
    • Staying mentally active can help ensure lasting brain health. This can include maintaining social ties and regularly engaging with friends, neighbors and relatives. It can also include learning new skills, reading, writing, building and generally engaging in activities that are interesting and stimulating to them. If you join them in these activities, you can help ensure they are regularly exercising their brain and bond with them over common interests.

By following these steps and looking out for red flags, you can help your loved one identify early changes in cognition, find the root cause of these changes and treat them accordingly. It’s important to identify issues with brain health early, as underlying conditions, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s can be managed effectively if identified early on.

Candace Williams, LCSW, ASW-G, FDC, CMS, FDC, MCPM, is the Director of Clinician Development for WellQor, the nation's leading provider of behavioral health services for Seniors. Candace received her MSW from Columbia University, and has spent over 20 years in the field developing unique interventions to better the lives of her clients. Throughout her time in the field, Candace has worked as a certified geriatric social worker, certified mediator, crisis management specialist, and family development specialist. She received the UnSung Heroes Award for her work during September 11th, where she supervised the disaster welfare inquiry center. For the last 10 years, she has specialized in working with older adults and their families, establishing herself as an industry expert with multiple published works, and regular public appearances speaking on the emotional and cognitive health of seniors.  At WellQor, Candace has created an extensive clinician training program, and continues to oversee the professional development and training of new clinicians. She also moderates their unique Clinician Connect platform, where psychologists and social workers collaborate to identify the appropriate interventions for older adults who are in need of support.