Have you ever walked out of a mall and completely forgotten where you parked? Gone to the store and not been able to remember what you went there to buy? Walked into a room and forgot why you were there? "Lost" a key word while telling a joke?
If these things happened to you at age 20, you probably didn't think a thing about it. At 40, you may begin to worry about having "senior moments" or approaching menopause. Perhaps you start thinking about using supplements to boost your memory. At 60, many people begin to panic at such memory gaps and worry: "Could this be the first sign of Alzheimer's disease?"
The older you get, the more likely you'll worry about memory problems -- and the more you worry about them, the more you'll notice each and every slip-up. Odds are you forgot quite a lot of things when you were in your teens or twenties, but you never paid any attention to those lapses. The fact is, the more you expect to have memory problems, the more you'll notice them.
But forgetting where you parked or where you left personal items is most often completely normal. It's known as "everyday forgetting," and it's so common because it involves things we do every day and usually don't spend too much time paying attention to.
Of course, while most of us experience everyday forgetting quite often, a few people have a true organic problem with memory that is not normal. How do you tell the difference between "normal" forgetting and a more serious problem with memory?
On the next page, take a test to determine the state of your memory.
This simple memory test may help give you a better idea of whether your memory problems are out of the ordinary or cause for concern. Keep in mind that this is just a simple paper-and-pencil memory test. For a more specific test of your memory, contact your doctor or a psychologist, who can administer a battery of special memory tests.
Simple Memory Test:
1. Remember these words: apple, television, lamb
2. Remember this name and address:
3. Have you had more trouble than usual remembering what you've done for the past few weeks?
4. Has it been harder for you to remember lists?
5. Have you noticed a decline in your ability to calculate in your head, such as figuring out a restaurant tip or making correct change?
6. Have you been forgetting to pay bills?
7. Have you had trouble remembering names?
8. Have you had trouble recognizing people you should know?
9. Have you had a hard time finding the right word you want to use?
10. Have you had trouble remembering how to do simple tasks such as using a microwave or a remote control?
11. Do memory lapses interfere with your functioning at work?
12. Do memory lapses interfere with your functioning at home?
13. Do memory lapses interfere with your functioning in social situations?
14. Name the last three mayors of your town.
15. Name the past five U.S. presidents.
16. What was the main dish you had for dinner the past two nights?
17. What were the last two movies you saw?
18. Write down the three words you were asked to remember at the beginning of the quiz.
19. Write down the name and address you were asked to remember at the beginning of the quiz.
Give yourself 1 point for each "no" answer for questions 3-13 (maximum 11 points)
Give yourself 1 point for each blank you correctly filled in for questions 14-19 (maximum 21 points)
If you scored:
28-32 Congratulations! You have a better-than-average memory.
22-27 Not bad, but you could benefit from some memory exercises.
15-21 Your memory is a bit weak; memory exercises should help you improve your memory.
0-14 You may want to consider getting a professional evaluation.
For further indications of memory problems, check out the warning signs and how to get help on the next page.
Memory Warning Signs
The following are common warning signs that memory problems may be more than everyday forgetfulness and should therefore warrant a medical evaluation:
- Memory problems that affect job performance or interfere with everyday functioning
- Difficulties with language, such as frequently forgetting simple words or substituting inappropriate words
- Disorientation in familiar locales or in familiar situations
- Confusion about time of day, month, season, or decade
- Decreased or unusually poor judgment
- Memory problems accompanied by other symptoms such as extreme fatigue, loss of interest in activities that are typically enjoyed, rapid or unusual changes in mood, agitation, listlessness, problems with balance and coordination, headaches, vision problems, numbness, shortness of breath, or chest pain
It's important to keep in mind that there are a variety of factors that can cause memory problems, from stress and depression to vitamin deficiencies and circulatory problems; not all memory impairments signify the onset of Alzheimer's disease. That's why a thorough medical evaluation is needed when memory problems are out of the ordinary or cause concern. Once the underlying cause is determined, it can often be treated, and the memory problems remedied as a result. Sometimes, the memory problems are simply the result of gradual changes that occur in the human brain as we get older. As we all know, memory can change as a result of age, and some of the most common lifestyle factors and medical problems can also cause memory impairment.
How to Get HelpIf you're truly worried about lapses in memory, you should discuss it with your doctor, who can give you a brief test to evaluate your memory and/or refer you to a psychologist or other specialist who can give you a battery of tests of memory, problem solving, counting, and language. Odds are, you'll be completely reassured after the tests show that your memory is more or less just about the same as everyone else's in your age bracket.
If your results suggest there may be some memory loss, your doctor will want to rule out physical causes of memory problems, such as alcohol abuse, drug use, sleep disorders, head injury, or any vascular problem such as a stroke or hardening of the arteries. Your doctor also might want to check for untreated diabetes or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Be prepared to give your doctor full details about all medications, herbs, or supplements you take, since some drugs and supplements can affect memory.
In addition, your doctor may order tests of blood and urine or a brain CT scan to help rule out brain disorders. A scan may also show signs of normal age-related changes in the brain. It may be necessary to have another scan at a later date to see if there have been further changes in the brain.
Even when memory problems have a physical cause, learning and practicing memory skills can be helpful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Richard C. Mohs, Ph.D., has been vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and associate chief of staff for research at the Bronx Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The author or co-author of more than 300 scientific papers, Dr. Mohs has conducted numerous research studies on aging, Alzheimer's disease, and cognitive function.