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Forgetfulness or Alzheimer's? A Simple Memory Test Can Help Ease Your Fears

By The Orange County Register

May 26, 2017
Five minutes into a test for memory, I’m pretty sure I’m really dumb, I’ve lost my mind — or both.

Yeah, yeah, I know based on some of my columns some would vote both.

But cut me some slack. Unknown to many people — like me — the earlier Alzheimer’s disease is detected, the better the chance of stopping it.

Experts report that it can be delayed for as long as two decades. For many baby boomers, that means a lifetime.

The Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program advises that if you are 45 or older get checked. The Alzheimer’s Association is looser. It’s basically if you can’t remember how to use the microwave, get tested.

After talking to a Mission Viejo finance guy named Ted Esau whose dad died with Alzheimer’s, I’m taking no chances. Better early testing than wondering why I interviewed someone.

I arrive at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute in Newport Beach and Celine Keeble, education and screening coordinator, explains the test in detail with patience and a smile.

She rattles off a list of words. I’m a little overwhelmed and feel I’m lucky if I’m reciting back half.

Photographer Jeff Gritchen is nearby, and I’m pretty sure he’s wondering about my sanity. I just hope he doesn’t report back to our version of Editor Perry White (Clark Kent’s boss, if I recall correctly) that one of his columnists is bonkers.

Slowing Alzheimer’s

The day starts badly. Even Google is forgetful. She — yes, my Google is a woman — sends me on a detour around a non-existent traffic jam. I arrive late to the institute next to Hoag Hospital.

Honest, it was Google’s fault that I didn’t know where to go.

Thanks to a subsidy from the institute and community donations, the Vital Brain Aging Program, OCBrain.org, only charges $45 and parking is free.

As I register, I fill out a card that will be mailed next year reminding me to come in for re-testing. But what if I don’t recall the previous test? The receptionist laughs. They’ll call.

I fill out a list of questions that are similar to an online self-assessment that the program offers at OCBrain.org. They include memory, depression, risk factors.

Since the program began seven years ago, some 4,500 local residents have had assessments. More than 25 percent were referred to their primary care physician for a check-up.

But three-fourths of those tested were over 64 — well after most experts advise to start testing.

Much of the reason for getting tested is creating a baseline. If the following year’s result is lower, adjustments in behavior, diet and medicine can be made.

Sometimes, Keeble says, the next test shows improved memory.

Ways to protect memory include managing medical conditions, exercising at least three days a week for 30 minutes, maintaining a healthy weight, getting seven to eight hours sleep, having low cholesterol, challenging your mind.

Dr. William Shankle is program director for memory and cognitive disorders at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute. “The big change in my field,” he says, “is that we do have the ability to test for (impairment) with a simple memory test while someone is still functioning normally.”

But Shankle adds that it’s a challenge to convince people that memory testing is as normal and as useful as getting a blood test.

UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders, too, offers test opportunities. Its focus is research participation. The website is Mind.uci.edu.

Of those tested through the Orange County Vital Brain Aging Program, 23 percent were impaired.

More men than women were impaired. And — as expected — cognitive ability declined as people aged. But not as much as you might expect.

Through age 75, fewer than 10 percent of participants were found impaired. By age 84, that reached 40 percent. By 94, it was close to 75 percent.

But, mind you, being impaired includes a wide range of abilities from simple memory loss to serious Alzheimer’s.

Keeble asks a list of questions. I admit to some depression, a little memory loss.

When vinyl rocked the world, I could reel off the band members of Led Zeppelin. But now, I sometimes mix up John Bonham (drums) and John Paul Jones (bass).

I know. Shameful, right?

While Keeble compiles my results, she points out depression and stress can affect memory.

Fear of testing

Keeble is in the field nearly every day. She reports one of the toughest things she encounters is fear.

People are afraid they might be getting Alzheimer’s. Yet often it’s simple aging or normal forgetfulness.

When I was in my 20s, I sometimes locked my keys in my car. I still do. (Yes, I keep a spare.) I misplace my wallet. Years ago, I found it in the freezer. Recently, I found it in the garbage.

Still, Keeble encounters true Alzheimer’s. “Some people cry,” Keeble says.

“It’s true there’s no cure,” she acknowledges. “But there are lots of things that be done that can impact the quality of life.”

Engaging different areas of the brain helps create connections, she explains. Being creative and problem-solving are key. Learning to do something new such as salsa dancing or taking up piano combine a variety of things that help with protecting memory.

As we wrap up, Keeble hands me a sheet of paper. It is my memory screen results.

There are no right or wrong answers. But there is an intricate interplay in the questions that test a variety of brain functions.

The document says: “Normal memory.”

For a test appointment: 949-764-6288. I’ll be back next year.

To view the original article from The Orange County Register, please click here.