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

Dealing with Midlife Distractions
Woman with post-its
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Ann E. Cutting

Fielding such questions from nervous Nellies like myself is routine for the experts at New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center's Center of Excellence on Brain Aging in New York City. "Five years ago, most of the people who came for testing were older, 70 and up. But as the baby boomer generation enters into its 50s and 60s, we've seen an increase in the number of people worried about their memory," says managing associate director Karyn Marsh. She escorts me through the enormous building, past a warren of labs, clinics, and offices, to sit down with Susan De Santi, Ph.D., an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at NYU. De Santi has analyzed thousands of tests, like the ones I took with my neurologist in New Jersey, as part of her memory research.

"Normal testing range for a woman of 45 barely differs from what's considered normal for a person 20 years her junior," explains De Santi. She's even willing to bet that had I taken this test two decades ago, I'd have performed just about the same. Or worse, because I had less invested. "Very seldom does an adult under the age of 60 come in and we find there is something going on," she continues. "And even then, the problem tends to be related to depression or something other than dementia that can impair memory." (See "When It's Not Alzheimer's" on page 4 for a list of eight conditions and drugs that impact your ability to recall information.)

Then why, I ask, are so many of us middle-agers pfumpfering around in search of our keys? Primarily, says De Santi, because we have so much more to pay attention to now than we did at a younger age. "When I was 20 I'd study for a few hours and go out and party the rest of the night," says De Santi."I look at my own life today...I'm working 15 hours a day. My efforts as an adult have to be much more directed for longer periods of time. We don't realize how much we are demanding of ourselves and that we burn out after a certain number of hours."

Undoubtedly, the ongoing salvo of information catapulted into our consciousness by BlackBerries, Tweets, e-mails, and cell phones has only added to our distraction. Diverting our attention to interrupting cell phones not only causes memory loss, it decreases the accuracy of our memory altogether, according to some research. "We don't start seeing significant and meaningful changes in memory performance until the age of 60." And even then, in the absence of illness, that doesn't signify inferior overall ability.

But there's more to it. Much of the reason we start to worry about memory slip-ups after 40 is because, well, we start to give a hoot. "My daughters are in their 20s, and they sometimes lose their train of thought but think nothing of it. As adults, we notice this kind of thing because we are concerned about getting older and developing a dementia like Alzheimer's," Ralph Nixon, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center, later tells me over the phone. He also points out that copious media coverage about Alzheimer's and memory problems has added to our generation's elevated anxiety levels. As Nixon talks, my mind wanders back in time to all the hours I spent locked out of my college dorm room because I'd forgotten my key. I recall that year in elementary school when I lost four winter coats. I realize it's true: To some extent, we do idealize what our memory might once have been.

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