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Test Your Memory in Five Minutes

So maybe you keep losing your keys, or the names of old acquaintances seem to escape you. For most people over 50, it's probably not cause for alarm. But if your forgetfulness is becoming more than a nuisance—you struggle with familiar tasks, you're not sure where you are or how you got there, your friends say you're repeating questions—some medical experts say you should get a "memory screen": typically a five-minute test featuring such tasks as memorizing a series of words, manipulating numbers, and spelling words backward. The idea is to test not just your memory, but everything from language skills to overall thinking ability.

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America, a nonprofit advocacy group, recommends these screenings to anyone with memory concerns. The foundation sponsors National Memory Screening Day (866-232-8484) each November, when free screenings are offered at more than 2,000 sites nationwide, including at many assisted living facilities. The test is no substitute for a medical diagnosis, but it can tip people off to early Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementias, and nudge a patient to see a doctor who could prescribe a treatment plan to slow the progression of symptoms, if necessary.

Not all health organizations believe mass screenings are the way to go, however. The Alzheimer's Association, another nonprofit advocacy group, says such quick tests are not accurate diagnostic tools and could lead to false positives, scaring people for no reason. Instead, the association encourages one-on-one consultations with doctors (particularly for those over 65) and tells people to watch for ten specific warning signs (to see the list, go to alz.org; you can also call 800-272-3900 for the organization's 24-hour help line). Those warning signs, says Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., director of medical and scientific relations at the association, might include "forgetting how to say words for everyday objects, like 'toothbrush,' and instead asking for 'the thing I use to brush my teeth.' Or, on your usual route from the grocery store, suddenly getting lost and not being able to find home."

Carrillo advises patients to see a doctor familiar with the disease and to take along a loved one for support. A good specialist, she says, will walk a patient through a series of cognitive tests, and perhaps an MRI or CT scan to rule out other problems, such as a stroke or a tumor.

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