Ask Helen: Forgetfulness

Dear Helen:
I’m 63. My friends range from early 40s to late 70s. In the 60+, I’m beginning to see signs of mental decay. Not so much the common or occasional forgetfulness about appointments or phone numbers but what seem like bigger chunks of their brains becoming less reliable. I don’t know whether to say something directly to them, gently ask a family member if they’ve observed anything similar or do nothing. My own parents succumbed to Alzheimer’s, so I am especially sensitive to the issue. I always said I’d shoot myself before I put my kids through what I experienced. But that sounds more like a younger person’s hyperbole than a realistic plan.
Wanna Stay Me

Dear Wanna Stay Me:

Consult folks who are experts on aging brains. Start with research online and local Alzheimer’s support groups. Look for information about early warning signals, as well as things you can do to sharpen your brain. As someone who recently studied a new language, I can attest to the value of stretching your neural network with new information. There’s lots of positive new research on neuroplasticity, the ability of our brains to learn and accessible software to back it up. Scientists who study animals in new situations have observed what they call “dendritic branching” in their brains, an image like the expansion of the Tree of Life in our head.

Raise the topic of memory loss with your friends. You can make it humorous, as in “I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, had no idea why and wasn’t even hungry!” Or “I got two blocks from my house and realized that without the errand list I’d left on the kitchen table, I’d just be wasting my time.” Keep it light unless you really sense someone has something to hide or a lot of shame about the topic. Then get more serious and personal, though one-on-one. I would not engage relatives unless you have personally observed something seriously worrisome. You’ll just create anxiety and possibly an unneeded intervention. But if you think something is really wrong, and are willing to risk the “buttinksi” tag, speak to a loving spouse or child, starting with, “Have you noticed so-and-so ‘slipping’ at all?” Then listen and learn how to help.

A resident of Eugene since 1981, Helen is a member of Temple Beth Israel, where she studies and speaks on Torah. She claims to have black belts in schmoozing, problem-solving and chutzpah. She’s a writer and an artist ( Please email your questions to

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