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You Lost Your Keys – Should You be Worried about Your Memory?



Have you ever walked into a room for something and suddenly, you forgot what you came in for? Or perhaps you’ve forgotten the name of someone you know. Memory lapses such as these can be a normal part of the aging process, yet they often leave us questioning – what’s normal and what’s not?

“The brain’s development doesn’t stop in childhood – it continuously changes throughout the course of one’s lifetime. As we age, some of these changes can affect our memory,” said Nancy S. Foldi, PhD, Director of Neuropsychology in the Division of Geriatrics at Winthrop-University Hospital, and Director of the Memory and Cognitive Disorders Center.

The brain, among the most complex organs in the body, is made up of approximately 10 billion cells. As we age, the brain’s mass can shrink and the outer surface can become thin. The white matter, which helps regions of the brain to communicate with one another, can become less efficient, and the available neurochemical transmitters that are necessary for communication between cells can also decline.

“Yet despite these structural changes, research shows that young and old people can still do some things equally well. Older adults may do it differently, but still as good as younger adults,” said Dr. Foldi. “We have a lot to learn about the relationship between structure and function of the brain as we age.”

In spite of the natural changes that occur with aging, there are many things a person can do to stimulate the brain and keep it sharp. Among the most important is general physical exercise – it not only helps keep the body in shape, but is an important tool for keeping the brain healthy.

While occasionally forgetting someone’s name or misplacing your keys is normal, other changes such as trouble remembering how to do things you’ve done well countless times before – like working on a familiar computer task or following steps of a well-known recipe – may indicate a more serious problem.

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“Sometimes even a routine task – like following a recipe – can become overwhelming if a person is carrying out that task in a different kitchen,” said Dr. Foldi. “A serious problem with memory loss may also be indicated if a family member observes significant changes, even though the individual may not.”

“Some patients who have memory problems may be aware that there is a problem, but not always the extent of the problem,” added Dr. Foldi. “It’s very important not to jump to a diagnosis of dementia without a full evaluation, because there can be other causes that alter cognitive function that must be considered.”

Alzheimer’s disease – one of the many types of dementia – is a progressive, degenerative disease that attacks the brain. In-depth clinical and neuropsychological evaluations are important assessment tools to determine whether the problems are due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Working with geriatricians, internal medicine physicians, neurologists, psychiatrists, and other physicians at Winthrop as part of a patient’s dedicated healthcare team, Dr. Foldi conducts comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations with patients. Many patients she assesses are in early stages of disease, or the presentation is unclear because Alzheimer’s disease can present itself in many different ways.

These thorough clinical assessments, which take place at Winthrop over the course of several hours or days, consider a patient’s medical history, current medications, and input from a third party – such as a family member or loved one.

“Every patient deserves a comprehensive clinical evaluation before a diagnosis is made and medical treatment is prescribed,” said Dr. Foldi.

In addition to providing clinical services, Dr. Foldi is also a Professor of Psychology at Queens College and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) and has been investigating the effects of aging on the brain and behavior since the 1970s.

Along with her colleagues in the Division of Geriatrics at Winthrop and at Queens College, Dr. Foldi conducts research studies on cognitive and attentional changes that occur in patients as well as healthy older adults.

Physicians in the Division of Geriatrics at Winthrop offer comprehensive primary care and specialized services for the growing geriatric population on Long Island. Working closely with patients and families to develop an individualized plan of care, the team is committed to helping patients maintain health, promote wellness and effectively manage chronic illnesses.

For more information on services available to patients in the Division of Geriatric Medicine at Winthrop, please call 1-866-WINTHROP.
Vol. 19, No. 2
Summer 2009

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