Ask the Doctor: Remembering Negative Events; Grumpiness; Time for a Dementia Check-up

Q: Is it true that we remember negative events more clearly than positive ones?

A: Studies have shown that yes, we do tend to remember the details of negative events better than we do the happier or positive ones. There are a number of theories as to why this is true. If you are ever in a scary or painful situation, your brain tends to focus sharply on the thing that is causing you pain or fear. For example, you may have a very specific recollection of a car accident, such as the vision of the oncoming car. But if you think about a wonderful family reunion, your memories may be much more diffused among the many conversations and hugs, the food, taking pictures, the beautiful picnic grounds, etc. Because your brain focused so intently on the oncoming car during your accident, the details of other things going on may have escaped you. But at the reunion, your focus wasn’t as sharp, as you were trying to take in everything you could from the event. Also, we tend to ruminate more over negative events than we do positive ones. You may have thought about criticism from a boss much more than you did a word of praise. Knowing how much more weight our negative memories carry can be helpful. When you recall a painful event, remind yourself that the worst is over and that you are moving on. And when you’re in the middle of a happy situation, focus on the details and concentrate on it afterward—seal that memory in your mind. If you are often troubled by painful memories, see a therapist.

Q: My wife jokingly calls me a “grumpy old man,” but I think it’s based on the truth. I do feel grouchier these days. Is this normal?

A: Getting “grumpier” is certainly a common occurrence among older men and women, too. And there are many factors that could potentially be affecting your mood. For example, as men age, testosterone levels drop. Lower levels of this important hormone can certainly have a negative impact on mood. But other issues can also play a role. Chronic pain from arthritis for instance, can affect your outlook. The same is true for other age-related health challenges. Also, men of retirement age often struggle with life in transition. Not having the responsibility and rewards of working full time can make a person feel uneasy, and that can present as a foul mood. Grumpiness may also be a sign of depression, which is not uncommon among older adults. Improving your mood can sometimes be accomplished with simple efforts, such as more exercise and time outdoors, as well as adopting an attitude of not complaining (especially about things beyond your control) and of being willing to embrace the positive opportunities before you. Say “yes” to offers you might be inclined to turn down, such as an afternoon at an art gallery or seeing a movie that might not normally be your cup of tea. But if your grumpy mood becomes more prevalent, share your feelings with a clinician.

Q: How do you know when it’s time to be tested for Alzheimer’s disease?

A: The short answer is that it’s time to talk with your doctor when memory loss, confusion in familiar settings, or trouble with decision-making, communication, concentration, problem-solving, or judgment start to interfere with your daily life. Classic early signs of dementia are things like getting lost on roads you travel regularly, difficulty with your monthly finances, and forgetting important events. However, if you forget a friend’s birthday or have a momentary bout of confusion on a road that has new construction alongside it, don’t immediately assume it’s Alzheimer’s. Take note of how your every-day functioning is going and ask those close to you to pay attention, too. If a loved one raises concerns, don’t get defensive. See your doctor and have that loved one accompany you to explain any behavior changes that have been observed.

—Editor-in-Chief Maurizio Fava, MD

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