The idea that your memory might be slipping is a scary one indeed. It’s not always accurate, however, and there are memory tests that doctors can use to test whether it’s actually happening or not.
A certain amount of forgetfulness is normal as we grow older. We may forget someone’s name or fail to pay a bill. Such memory lapses are mild and usually a normal part of aging. We have all had instances of losing track of our keys and not remembering the name of the movie we saw last month.
For me, I’ve always been great with people’s faces, but their names, or even worse – dates – forget about it (no pun intended).
There are, however, more serious signs that our short-term memory is failing and that we need to discuss the situation with a doctor. How do we tell the difference?
Medicare Provider Resource
While this article is intended more for consumers, providers should benefit from the information as well. Seniors are overwhelmingly going to be relying on Medicare as their primary insurance, of course, so providers should know Medicare regulations around cognitive assessments.
In order to bill Medicare, the provider must be one of the following:
- a physician
- nurse practitioner
- clinical nurse specialist
- physician assistant
The cognitive assessment can be performed in one of 5 locations:
- office or other outpatient setting
- private residence
- care facility
- rest home
- via telehealth
When is Memory Loss a Problem?
Do you keep asking the same questions over and over? Are you having difficulty following easy, simple instructions, such as how to put together a recipe? Do you keep becoming more and more mixed up over people and places.
Alzheimer’s Disease, as we all know, can lead to memory loss, but not all memory loss is linked to Alzheimer’s and related dementias. And, in some cases, it can be treated once the cause has been found.
Common Causes of Memory Loss
- Certain medications can affect memory loss. According to the AARP.org, there are a number of drugs that can cause memory loss in seniors:
- Cholesterol medications
- Anti-seizure medications
- Antidepressant medications
- Parkinson’s medications
- Hypertension medications
- Sleeping aids
- Incontinence medications
- Antianxiety medications
Talk to a Doctor
Trying to diagnose memory loss yourself, with friends or online (including this article) is not a sound approach. Even with some of the self-administered memory tests we will list here it is advised not to use them for self-diagnosis.
We’re our own worst enemies when we go online online trying to self-diagnose. Always ask your doctor for professional medical advise!
Poor sleeping habits, especially sleep apnea, are directly linked to loss of memory, according to the Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins. The opposite of sleep apnea, which is a deep, REM sleep, is critical to preventing memory loss.
Anyone, especially seniors, can experience a silent stroke, which affects the blood vessels and cognitive health. Frequent forgetfulness can be an early signal of an impending stroke.
Today’s seniors are among the first generation to be raised on an abundance of processed, sugary food. Much of what we eat is lacking in nutritional value. If you don’t feed your brain healthy foods, especially those containing Vitamin B12, you are vulnerable to memory loss. Fresh food is one of your best weapons against a brain that wants to slow down.
Chronic stress can lead to loss of attention and a deterioration of memory, according to the Journal of Pharmacy & BioAllied Sciences. Anti-stress exercises, such as yoga and meditation, can help get the brain back on track.
How Does A Doctor Test for Alzheimer’s?
When you see a doctor regarding memory loss, they will conduct a series of tests to determine the symptoms and causes of the changes in your behavior. These tests are not an exact science yet, but they will help the doctor develop an overall picture of your brain health. You should take these tests as soon as possible to receive the best treatment and plan for the future. When in doubt as to whether to see the doctor, it is best to lean on the side of caution.
Your doctor will not rely on one or two test results alone. There are several diagnostic tools that he or she will use to pinpoint any memory loss problems.
The first thing any doctor will do is get your complete medical history, including any medication you are taking. This data will include your family’s medical history as well to determine any genetic risks.
This history gathering will be following by laboratory tests to eliminate any causes of the memory loss, such as thyroid problems, diabetes and kidney issues, and faulty drug interactions. These lab tests usually involve blood and urine tests, and the taking of vital signs. The doctor will have a thorough discussion about lifestyle and habits.
As a final option, the doctor will suggest and/or perform cognitive tests.
5 Most Common Memory Tests
The most common memory loss tests include the following
1 – Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE)
A very basic and common cognitive test is the Mini-Mental State Exam (“MMSE”). This is a short test and does not have to be given by a doctor. The MMSE measures a person’s orientation as to time and place, short-term memory, problem-solving abilities, language skills, comprehension skills, and motor skills.
An example of some of the MMSE questions would be something relatively simple, such as naming the city and country in which the person is living or naming three unconnected objects.
A poor score on the MMSE is not an automatic diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, of course. The score would be considered along with the medical history, brain scans, and neurological exams.
The results of the MMSE are best used to eliminate a finding of dementia rather than confirming it. Elimination is a critical diagnostic function.
2 – Saint Louis University Mental Status Exam (SLUMS)
SLUMS, or the Saint Louis University Mental Status Exam, may be given in conjunction with the MMSE. SLUMS is a test consisting of a series of questions. Scores range from 0 to 30, with one point given for each correct answer. It is an excellent tool for identifying mild cognitive issues and early-stage dementia or mild dementia. This early detection allows doctors to attempt early preventive measures.
You can actually download the SLUMS Exam to see for yourself.
3 – Mini-Cog
The Mini-Cog consists of two tests:
The three-word-recall test involves the administrator providing three unconnected words, such as apple, paper, ceiling, and asking the test-taker to repeat them. This tests short-term memory loss, which is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.
The second part of the Mini-Cog is to have the test-taker draw a clock marking a specific time, such as two-thirty. This helps test the test-taker’s understanding of basic words, such as clock, as well as recognition of time and place. In addition, the three-word test can be repeated after the clock-drawing, when some time has passed. This makes it more challenging.
4 – Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE)
The SAGE (“Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam” – download it here) is a self-evaluation tool that can be administered at home to anyone having concerns about his or her cognitive state or who suspects the onset of memory loss. This test was established at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The questions are intended to determine time and date orientation, short-term memory, the ability to name simple objects, such as a list of animals, math and problem-solving ability, and the same clock-drawing test administered with the MMSE.
The test-giver provides the test-taker with pen and pencil to take the test. It is crucial to remember that although the test is self-administered, only a doctor can interpret the results accurately. The SAGE has been shown to be a bit more accurate than the MMSE test. The interpretation and evaluation should not be done at home, however.
5 – Test Your Memory (TYM)
The TYM test (Test Your Memory – download it here) is another helpful test that can be provided by a physician to evaluate the extent of a senior’s memory loss. It consists of 10 tasks and is intended to back up and validate the results of the MMSE test. The TYM is extremely effective in early memory loss detection. It also provides a permanent record of a person’s cognitive state at a specific time and date.
Brain imaging, such as MRI or CT scans, is effective in ruling out brain injury or tumors, conditions that can produce the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s.
4 Steps to Slow the Onset of Dementia
While a certain amount of memory loss does not need to be life-changing, there are steps to take that will – in some cases – slow down memory loss.
1 – Exercise Regularly
Regular exercise does more than improve our bodies. It improves our capacity to think, as well. Studies have shown that exercise works directly with the portions of the brain that deal with memory.
According to Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School:
Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions.https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-can-boost-your-memory-and-thinking-skills
Thus far, it hasn’t been determined what types of exercises are most beneficial to counteract memory loss, because most studies have involved walking. But aerobic exercises are also recommended. Dr. Scott firmly believes that exercise should become a daily habit.
2 – Maintain Good Nutrition
The Alzheimer’s Organization has determined that good nutrition is important to seniors, who often forget to eat or become overwhelmed with an overabundance of food selections. Fresh vegetables and fruits, healthy grains, and lean, low-fat options are the best choices. Sugar should be consumed only in minimal quantities or eliminated altogether. Sugar serves no health benefits and can easily become a health problem.
3 – Get Plenty of Sleep
Developing regular sleeping habits can help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
4 – Be a Lifelong Learner
Seniors frequently do not get enough brain stimulation. In battling Alzheimer’s, it can be very helpful to take on new tasks, such as crossword puzzles or other hobbies. Again, according to Harvard Health Publication, the brain should be treated like a muscle that will improve with use and exercise.
Almost 20 percent of enrolled college students are over the age of 35. Some are working toward a degree, and many are simply taking classes that are of interest or that will broaden their horizon, such as learning a new language, photography, or how to play an instrument.
A crucial additional benefit to going back to school as a senior is that it can prevent the isolation from which many seniors suffer which can lead to depression. Those college tests might be the best “memory tests” of all!
How to Cope with Senior Memory Loss
It is difficult for most seniors to accept gradual memory loss. There will likely be anger and denial, and these emotions are entirely normal. To deal with the negative emotions, seniors need a sense of purpose, they need to be reassured that they still matter.
Either on their own or with a caregiver, there are a number of activities that may help seniors ease the pain of memory loss:
- Bake or try new recipes. These can be shared with family or grateful neighbors.
- Singing to their favorite tunes. This works very well with a group of people around.
- Perform small organizational chores, such are sorting clothes by color or organizing a photo album.
- Take on a simple assignment such as knitting or drawing.
- Find someone with whom to watch movies and discuss the story and characters afterward.
- Find someone with whom to play cards or other games.
- Encourage seniors to talk about his or her childhood and past. The fact is, there are few patient listeners for the elderly, who frequently are left with little but their memories. Allow them to share those memories, and perhaps even learn from them.
The more severe the memory loss, the greater the danger of withdrawing from friends and loved ones. That will only worsen any memory loss problem. Said friends, family, and/or caregivers should encourage participation in the above activities. They can be fun, and they will continue to provide needed brain stimulation.
Note: caregivers need to ensure that the activity is something that the senior can handle. If not, it will only cause greater anxiety and frustration.