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Memory: Is Mine Normal?

I couldn't tell if I was distracted, losing my marbles or both, so I checked into a brain lab to find out. What I learned changed my life

En español l I've always had a temperamental memory. A review I read 20 years ago about a movie I didn't see? No problem. What I did last month? Forget it.

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I'm perfectly capable of failing to remember my neighbor's name when I see her at the market. Heck, I'm perfectly capable of failing to recognize my neighbor completely. Recently, I blanked out on a dinner party a friend had thrown for me a few years back. I apparently went, schmoozed, felt grateful for his effort — but forgot about the whole thing. (And no, I hadn't been tipsy.)

Mine is the kind of memory that causes a 50-plus person like me to worry, especially given the stats: Approximately 5.4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and researchers say the number will nearly triple by 2050.

Experts warn that our society isn't prepared for the cost of caring for so many people who can no longer cope with daily life.

Excuse me: I'm not only concerned about paying for caregiving; I'm just as worried about actually needing it which is why I jumped at the opportunity to have my memory assessed and improved at one of the nation's cutting-edge cognitive clinics: the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness near Baltimore, MD.

The institute is run by Majid Fotuhi, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist who is pushing his colleagues to change the way we think about thinking.

Memory experts have long focused primarily on the still-mysterious role played by plaques, tangles and other physiological components of the brain. But Fotuhi and a handful of colleagues have begun to hone in on how people's lifestyles and daily routines affect their minds. The research represents a radically different approach to the study of the brain, and it's starting to get serious attention.

At the institute, Fotuhi works with therapists, a physiologist and a technician to treat a wide range of people, from college students with concussions to people in the late stages of cognitive decline — as well as productive professionals like me who are fretting about their forgetfulness. Many of his patients get a personalized, multi-month "brain fitness program" to prevent problems, fix them or both. The promise: Treatment will cut the risk of a mental decline and also improve the workings of your memory right now.

At the institute, Fotuhi works with therapists, a physiologist and a technician to treat a wide range of people, from college students with concussions to people in the late stages of cognitive decline — as well as productive professionals like me who are fretting about their forgetfulness. Many of his patients get a personalized, multi-month "brain fitness program" to prevent problems, fix them or both. The promise: Treatment will cut the risk of a mental decline and also improve the workings of your memory right now.

So when I'm invited to visit the institute for a day-and-a-half crash session designed to give me a sense of the program, I utter the only response a frazzled boomer with a job, two kids, a husband and a dog can give: How soon can I come?

On a cold, gray morning this year, I nervously make my way to the clinic, a medical building so nondescript and forgettable that it doesn't seem fair to patients.

As I enter the suite of exam rooms, Fotuhi greets me warmly and ushers me into his office to begin my preliminary examination. The doctor is a teddy bear of a man with a gorilla-size CV: He has a medical degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore; his research is published in leading medical journals, and he lectures around the world. But he's thoroughly approachable as he checks my reflexes and instructs me to jump from foot to foot — a quick way to assess my nimbleness and overall vigor. Then he sits down at his desk and invites me to talk, as if we had all the time in the world.

Next page: Stress and cognitivity. »

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BRAIN HEALTH: Memory loss and brain decay as you get older can now be slowed, or even reversed.

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