A Normal Memory Lapse or a Harbinger of Dementia?

Guideposts’ editor-in-chief reveals a common fear: that a normal loss of memory might mean something more dire.

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- Posted on Apr 27, 2021

Edwatd Grinnan with Gracie; photo by Katye Martens Brier

I peered out the kitchen window into the moonless winter night, the snow blanketing our lawn barely a shadow. “Can you see her?” I called upstairs to Julee.

“No.” Julee’s vantage point was better than mine. She should be able to track Gracie’s movements through our yard, thanks to the bright green collar light I always turn on before I let her out. But had I? Had I remembered? It’s practically an automatic thing. I always remember.

“Maybe the battery is dead,” Julee said. No, I knew I’d just replaced that collar light.

A sickening panic stirred within me. Not out of fear for Gracie. She’d be fine. Fear for myself.

I’ve written before about my family’s history of Alzheimer’s. My mother died of it, as did both her sisters, a brother and their father, my Pop-Pop. (I was too young to understand why he was always forgetting my name.) Already some of my older cousins on that side of the family are showing signs. Some days it feels as if I am trying to outrun my shadow.

It’s why I’m working on a Guideposts book about Alzheimer’s. It will be part memoir; part discussion of caregiving challenges, including some of my favorite Guideposts stories about caregiving; and part exploration of my own vulnerability to the disease. Are there scientific tests and studies I can participate in? Is it possible to know what the future holds? Do I even want to know? I will never forget my mother’s dreadful decline. It was the most painful and bewildering thing I’ve ever seen.

Maybe I’ve been reading too many Alzheimer’s memoirs and brain health books in doing my research. Every little misfire of memory—which seems to happen more and more often—ignites an inner frenzy of doubt about the state of my own mind. Just like now, as I quietly panicked over not remembering if I’d remembered to turn on Gracie’s light. My brain was spinning like a top.

“There she is!” Julee shouted. A minute later, a cheerful bark at the side door proclaimed that Gracie was eager to be let in and get her treat. Removing her collar, I saw that the light was indeed off. Julee guessed that Gracie might have extinguished it herself, rolling in the snow, which she enjoys, crazy golden that she is. I wasn’t so sure.

That night, staring sleeplessly at the ceiling, pondering the state of the 86 billion neurons—give or take—humming inside my skull, I couldn’t shut out one researcher’s words about the disease’s preclinical stage: “While no symptoms will appear for some time...Alzheimer’s is brewing in the brain. Amyloid plaque is forming outside the brain’s neurons, and another form of protein is clumping from the inside. Until we find a cure, from the time Alzheimer’s manifests, it is a slow march to the grave.”

No wonder I couldn’t sleep.

I was still brooding on it the next day and unloaded on a friend. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “If I flipped out every time I forgot something, I’d be in a constant state of stress. Dude, you forget more stuff than you ever remember in life. Lighten up. If your faith can’t help you with this, I don’t know what can. There’s your answer.”

It’s an answer I too often forget. God’s got this, no matter what my brain’s future holds. Worrying about it is just me trying to take it out of his hands. I must trust he will guide me in the writing of this book.

It would be a comfort, though, to know that some of you share this anxious preoccupation with forgetfulness. Do you forget to remember stuff? Let me know at egrinnan@ guideposts.org. Maybe your stories in the book can help others too.

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