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Which memory changes are normal?

Updated: Mar 4, 2020

Sometimes it's hard to know if the changes you see in a person are a normal part of aging, stress, or the signs of a medical condition.

Usually it takes a specialist in memory to know if the changes are normal, such as a neurologist who has done training in Cognitive Neurology. Even if a person gets memory testing through a community screening program, through their primary care, or with a neuropsychologist, a normal test result could still be abnormal for the person. Why? Because it depends on each person's individual intelligence, education, and life experience. And also, because a score or a number does not really mean much when we are dealing with human beings.

Let me explain further. Let's say a person who was previously able to talk about complicated subjects in front of people for 8 hours per day, as a corporate executive, starts noticing trouble focusing and cannot work for more than 4 hours per day. He or she scores perfect on all memory tests. Does this mean he or she does not have a memory issue? No, because he or she is so high performing that the tests were not able to capture the problem. He or she should still be seen by a memory specialist and have some other exams to make sure there is not a serious problem.

What do these exams consist of? Usually a detailed conversation between the doctor, the patient, and the family about what they have been noticing is different about the person. This usually tells the doctor if this is worrisome or not. But then, just to be sure, the doctor should order blood tests to see if there is an easily reversible form of memory loss, and brain imaging, to make sure there is not a stroke or tumor. They also often order memory testing, or Neuropsychology, which compares a person's performance to other people at the same age and with the same level of education. But again, even if memory testing or Neuropsychology is normal, they should still see a Cognitive Neurologist to be sure.

I have had several people come to me with just the same story as above, and we were able to help the person, or reverse the symptoms. It often takes a Cognitive Neurologist to know how to treat these symptoms and to be able to reassure the patient that everything is OK. However, if they had waited longer, the symptoms may have progressed to the point that we couldn't reverse them. So, it is best not to wait, and come to a specialist as soon as these symptoms are noticed.

How do you know if you should see a specialist? Anyone noticing memory changes should see a specialist. Anyone who has family or friends who notice memory changes should see a specialist. And anyone who is suspected by their doctor to have memory changes should see a specialist.

Here are some general ideas on what may be normal or easily reversible:

-Going into a room and forgetting why you went there

-Losing objects but being able to find them later

-Trouble learning the names of people you just met

-Needing more time to complete a task as you get older

And here are some general ideas on what may be signs of a brain disorder:

-Having no memory of something that happened, and reminders do not help

-Needing an excessive amount of reminders

-Trouble coming up with the names of people you have known for years

-Needing an excessive amount of time to complete tasks

-Losing objects frequently

-Repeating oneself

-Forgetting to pay bills*

-Unexpectedly withdrawing large sums of money*

-Getting scammed*

-Trouble coming up with words

-Not remembering how to drive somewhere familiar

-Falling asleep during the day

-Not responding when called during the day

-Inability to stop worrying

-Inability to control negative thoughts

-Easily tired

-Easily irritable

*Eversafe is a new technology that may be able to monitor your family’s finances.

And, if there is any doubt, see a Memory Specialist, such as a Cognitive Neurologist. We often reassure people that the changes are normal or can be easily reversed or helped.

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