Time to worry?

Amanda Johnson, Ph.D., of Upper Peninsula Health System talks about neuropsychology Wednesday at the monthly “Meet the Physicians” series at the Peter White Public Library. She talked about topics like cognitive stimulation and self-organization, which can promote mental health. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Most of us forget things at one time or another. When is it time to worry?

Amanda Johnson, Ph.D., of UP Health System, spoke on the multi-faceted topic of neuropsychology Wednesday at the monthly “Meet the Physicians” series at the Peter White Public Library.

According to ScienceDaily.com, neuropsychology is one of the most eclectic of the psychological disciplines since it sometimes overlaps with fields like neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry, philosophy and computer science.

This discipline is Johnson’s specialty.

Johnson said people have “memory flubs,” but they aren’t always part of dementia.

“Your brain does not stay the same as you get older,” Johnson said. “People frequently come to me, convinced that they’re not the same as they used to be, and they will give me long explanations of how their brain does not work as well as it had.”

However, the expectation should be that people’s minds aren’t the same as when they were 30, 40 or even 50, she said.

There are normal changes that happen to everybody. So, walking into a room and forgetting why is not necessarily a reason for concern, she said.

“Our brains, to a small degree, get a little bit of shrinkage,” Johnson said. “By the time people are 60 or so, almost everybody has some degree of small stroke activity that they weren’t even aware of having.”

There are some memory strategies, though, people can use to help with their day-to-day lives, and these don’t have to involve putting sticky notes all over themselves.

Johnson’s first suggestion? Get organized.

“A lot of times people don’t have a good strategy in place in order to remember their own appointments,” Johnson said.

Electronic and paper devices are available, she noted, but they won’t work if people don’t use them.

She also recommended keeping items — things people constantly lose, like their keys — in the same places.

Other tactics Johnson mentioned include:

• focusing and trying to be more “tuned in” to what’s in front of them;

• asking people to repeat or rephrase something to clarify it; 

• writing things down as quickly as possible;

• performing small tasks, like paying bills, immediately so they don’t build up;

“chunking” information, such as the ingredients for lasagna;

• having keywords;

• using imagery; and

• using mnemonics, which are devices or learning techniques that aid in information retention.

“For the colors of the rainbow: Does anyone remember the mnemonic device?” Johnson asked the audience.

There was more than one quick reply.

“ROY G BIV,” was the correct answer, which stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

Johnson also discussed lifestyle factors that are important to retaining memory.

“Heart-healthy diet is going to be the same kind of diet that’s really healthy for a brain too,” Johnson said. “We emphasize lots of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, so you want to try to get the fish in once a week and the chicken in, and try to have as little of the starchies — breads, those sorts of things.

“We all have them occasionally, but try to fill your plate, the majority of your plate, with vegetables and lean meats.”

Exercise — ideally the type that will get the heart pumping — and refraining from smoking are good ways too of improving memory, she said.

Social stimulation also helps.

“When people are socially isolated and not leaving their houses, they’re not getting out to do much,” Johnson said. “Those sorts of things can be detrimental to brain function.”

She often is asked whether crossword puzzles help.

“I say, ‘If you like to do crossword puzzles, do crossword puzzles,'” Johnson said.

That type of cognitive stimulation, she pointed out, involves anything that gets the brain going: reading, card games and the like.

However, she stressed that doing a crossword puzzle isn’t going to cure dementia.

“There’s lots and lots of things that can cause dementia,” “Johnson said. “The most common type of dementia in the elderly is obviously Alzheimer’s disease.”

A stroke or a head injury also can cause dementia.

However, when is the time to be concerned?

One warning sign is if a person becomes repetitive, she said, and that repetition goes beyond telling a favorite story.

“If a person’s doing it in a short span of time and they don’t seem to recognize that they’ve already said this to you, that’s concerning,” Johnson said.

Being confused and disoriented, or not recalling something like a recent doctor’s appointment or an important event, also are problematic, she said, and ironically, it’s the patient — not everybody else around them — who has the least concern about dementia.

Johnson receives referrals from professionals like internal medicine specialists, family doctors and neurologists to more throughly evaluate a person’s cognitive functions.

That typically involves sitting down with a patient and loved one to talk about symptoms and getting a patient history, and then performing memory testing, she said.

Determining if there’s a diagnosis can provide peace of mind to people and can be helpful with possible treatments and expectations given to them, she said. For example, a family can learn how to handle safety concerns for its loved one.

A neuropsychologist is unique in this regard.

“We are one of the only groups that are actually sitting down for a while with the family and the patient and having these long discussions,” Johnson said.

The next “Meet the Physicians” session, co-sponsored by UPHS and the library, will be at noon Oct. 18 in the Shiras Room at PWPL. The speaker, Dr. Sheetal Acharya, will discuss breast screening. For more information, call 906-226-4318 or visit www.pwpl.info.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.