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Memory Lapses: What's Normal, What's Not

Have you ever stepped into a room and couldn't remember why you were there? Blanked on your daughter's friend's name? Misplaced your car keys? Memory lapses can launch us into a panic about what's okay and what's cause for concern. Author Peg Rosen embarked upon a search to find out. The answers will surprise you.
Woman in a fog
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Ann E. Cutting

I'm sitting across from a white-coated woman, struggling to recall whether "apricots" is on a list of random items she's just read to me. I search for clues in her face, but she stares back blankly, just as she did a few minutes earlier as I attempted to recall what a boy had been eating in a picture she'd shown me. Was it salad? Spaghetti? A second glimpse reveals that he wasn't, in fact, eating. Oookaay. This is basically how my morning at a neurologist's office in New Jersey goes. And by the time the three-hour battery of tests I've paid $700 to undergo is finished, I stumble out utterly convinced that I am in the clutches of early-onset Alzheimer's or that, basically, I've become a complete idiot before I've even turned 50.

Not that I didn't already have my suspicions: After increasingly losing track of my cell phone, spacing out on appointments, and forgetting to follow up with friends regarding their recent biopsies, job interviews, and the like, I'd become convinced—actually frantic—that my memory was going and thus scurried off to see a doctor. It's an anxiety, apparently, that's hardly limited to myself and several of my 40- and 50-something friends: According to a recent international survey administered by the Harvard School of Public Health, people fear Alzheimer's second only to cancer.

One in five women who reach the age of 65 will ultimately develop Alzheimer's, but only 200,000 Americans have early-onset Alzheimer's, which usually appears around age 40 or 50. And believe it or not, middle-aged adults (in their 40s and 50s) worry more about their memory than people in their 70s and 80s do. "This may be because middle-aged adults tend to live complex lives with a lot of things hanging in the balance. It makes the anticipation of losses now or in the future very scary," says Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. He adds another, more philosophical observation: "So much of who we are is defined by what we remember. Losing our memories can feel like we are losing ourselves."

When the results of my tests come in about a week later, I am somewhat surprised by the findings. I scored in the bottom 1 percent on one portion that assessed my attention level. I also didn't do well on a part that tested "auditory processing." In other words, I don't listen very well. Sounds like me in real life. On the other hand, I scored in the top 99th percentile in sections that hinged on language—for example, naming as many items as I could starting with a certain letter. Makes sense—I earn a living as a writer. In the end, the results confirmed what most people close to me suspected: I'm perfectly normal, although I rush a lot and could pay closer attention when people are talking to me. But as I scramble into my car and turn the ignition, my flush of relief is quickly replaced by two unsettling questions: What is normal for a woman my age? And if this is normal, how lame-brained will I be by the time I hit 55? Or 65?

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