07/22/2014 05:48 EDT | Updated 09/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Getting Forgetful? Try This Memory Checkup

Katie Black Photography via Getty Images

Oscar Wilde said that memory is the diary that we all carry about. But as we age, some pages in that diary fade, others come up blank, and some are still as crisp and clear as the day we wrote them. That's my impression, anyhow, after having done a wildly popular memory test that was created by scientists at Toronto's Baycrest Health Sciences Centre and MaRS Discovery District.

The free online brain health assessment for Canadians worried about their memory (it's aimed at people over the age of 50) can be found here. I just learned that over 20,000 people have already taken it since its launch not long ago.

Cogniciti, the company that developed it, is careful to communicate that it's not a diagnosis tool but rather a check-up -- think of it as taking your memory's "pulse." The 20 minute assessment is simple, even entertaining, in that it includes a series of game-like mental challenges that tap into memory and attention performance. Without giving much away, one of the tests asks you to match faces to names which were previously given to you; another (the one I found most frustrating) asks you to find and match different shapes, while the one I liked best which seemed to test your reflex and attention skills asked you to record quickly how many words were on a page.

I did the assessment twice, though when taking it the second time I logged in and couldn't remember my password. Yikes, I thought: Maybe a giant message will flash on the screen directing me to "see your doctor immediately! Wow, this is bad: You cannot even remember the password you just set up to let you take this memory test." Strange as it seemed to me, upon completion of the test, my memory was deemed to be normal. Just normal.

Indeed, data from Cogniciti Inc. reveals that the vast majority of those who have taken the assessment scored in the normal, healthy range for their age and education. Just two per cent had test results below normal. Even more interesting is the fact that close to one-quarter of the 20,000 who have already taken the test stated on the pre-test health questionnaire that they had significant memory concerns. Most of the test takers were women; 41 per cent were in their 60s.

The online assessment aims to pick up those who may have real problems; an almost instant report-back system allows you to see where you fit memory-wise. Of course a deteriorating memory does not necessarily mean dementia or Alzheimer's. A flabby memory can even benefit from memory fitness interventions or strategies to help maintain or improve your memory. Baycrest's Memory and Aging Program, for example, has run successful memory courses for years.

If the Cogniciti tool reassures Canadians, its website also provides good information on brain health -- what to eat, the value of exercise, and, most importantly perhaps, things to know about your memory that you may not even realize. To that end, a posted video of Dr. Fergus Craik, a Baycrest senior scientist and one of the experts on the team of clinical neuropsychologists and cognitive scientists who developed the tool, explains how memory is "not good or bad" -- just different.

Age-related memory changes are normal, he says. The kinds of memory that tend to fall off as we age include episodic memory (recollecting specific events or experiences), prospective memory (the ability to remember to do something planned -- such as stopping on the way home from work to pick up milk), and detail memory (retrieving names -- in particular, those we know well but draw a blank with recalling as in "The other day I saw old, uh, what's-his-name...")

But certain parts of our memory don't let us down as we age. Our primary memory (looking up a phone number, say, and then dialing it immediately) stays strong, and our longterm memory holds up, too -- as long as we retrieve bits and pieces from it from time to time. No matter what your age or lapses in memory, you never seem to forget how to ride a bicycle, play baseball or make pasta Bolognese -- those things are encoded in yet another kind of memory..

I think this memory assessment is a great tool: It's based on brain science, gives almost instant feedback, is linked to an informative website, and is a lot easier on you and your bank account than the complicated, expensive and sometimes bogus train-your-brain kits that are sold on the Internet.

And what if your low score confirms your worst suspicion? Baycrest's Dr. Angela Troyer, a lead member of the project team that developed the tool, says that a doctor's check-up will rule out any health problems that could cause cognitive issues: "If it turns out that you do have a significant problem with your memory, then early diagnosis along with science-based education and interventions will help you maintain your cognitive health and independence for as long as possible. And enable you and your family to plan for the care and support you'll need in future."


  • Your medications
    Your medications
    Do you take some commonly prescribed and over-the-counter drugs like antihistamines and painkillers? These may interfere with your memory. Potentially most troublesome are those medications whose mechanism is to act on your brain—like antidepressants, antipsychotics, and sleep and anxiety aids, according to Dr. Alessi. Some associated memory loss may come on suddenly, but it’s usually short-term and will likely improve once you stop the medication, she says. Though some people may have no problems with these medications and their effect on memory, others—especially those people who have a pre-existing problem with cognition or early memory loss—may be more susceptible. Check in periodically with your doctor, Dr. Alessi advises, to make sure the medication is still necessary. And never stop a medication suddenly, she warns. You may need to taper off slowly to give your body a chance to adjust. On the flip side of this issue, emerging research suggests that taking cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) may have protective effects on the mind. Dr. Alessi cautions that while research is mixed, the drugs don’t appear to be cause memory loss (as previously thought).
  • Your stress level
    Your stress level
    Do you often feeling overwhelmed or anxious? When you're stressed, it can affect your brain in the form of forgetfulness, confusion, or difficulty concentrating. And stress doesn’t just go to your brain; it can go to your belly, as well. Here’s how it happens: the body, in response to stress, releases the hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol leads to belly fat, which can, in turn, lead to memory loss and cognitive impairment. Don’t believe it? Research proves it: Middle-aged people with high amounts of abdominal fat are 3.6 times as likely to develop memory loss and dementia later in life. Minimize your stress by exercising regularly—at least 30 minutes, 3 times a week. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and may even help new brain cells grow. Activities like yoga, meditation, tai chi, and Qigong are effective stress reducers, too.
  • Your diet
    Your diet
    Does your diet contain a lot of healthy brain food? Apparently it should. Registered dietitian Samantha Heller, author of "Get Smart: Samantha Heller’s Nutrition Prescription for Boosting Brain Power and Optimizing Total Body Health," says that eating healthier means a healthier brain. Fats: Since two-thirds of your brain is made up of fat, eating fat is one essential way for neurons to communicate with one another, Heller says. Good fats are unsaturated, liquid at room temperature and generally come from plants (with the exception of coconut, palm and palm kernel oils, which are saturated fats). They’re found in foods like fish (like especially salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel), avocados, nuts, sunflower, flax and pumpkin seeds and tofu. Fish: Women who reported eating tuna or dark-meat fish like sardines, herring, trout or swordfish at least once a week had better verbal memory four years later than women who ate fish less than once a week. Fruits and Vegetables: These contain compounds that help reduce oxidative stress, which is implicated in the development and progression of brain aging and cognitive decline. Veggies like kale, broccoli, spinach, and cabbage helps keep a good supply of antioxidants to protect cells and support a healthy brain, says Heller. The next time you eat fruit, consider the blueberry: In a study of adults in their 70s who were experiencing early memory loss, those who drank 2 to 2 1/2 cups of wild blueberry juice each day for three months performed significantly better on memory tests compared with adults who did not consume blueberry juice. Grains: Since studies show that eating carbohydrates enhances memory, says Heller, don’t skimp—but keep ‘em whole. “Whole grains such as whole-wheat breads and pastas, quinoa, brown and wild rices, and whole grain crackers have fiber, vitamins, minerals and the carbohydrates your brain needs for fuel,” she says.
  • Your sleep
    Your sleep
    How’d you sleep last night? Chances are your most honest answer is “not so good.” And the sad truth is that as we age, both the quality and the quantity of our sleep deteriorate. Not only can a bad night’s sleep leave you cranky, but it can play mind games with you. Research suggests that memory consolidation, through the strengthening of the neural connections that form our memories, takes place during sleep. Without adequate sleep, it’s tough to make a memory stick so it can be recalled in the future. Still more research finds that if you’re not well rested, fatigue easily interferes with the ability to consolidate and retrieve information. Your mind may have a tough time focusing and learning when you’re weary. What to do? - Go to bed at a set time each night and get up at the same time each morning. - Try to exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day. - Avoid drinks that contain caffeine, which acts as a stimulant and can keep you awake. Sources of caffeine include coffee, sodas, chocolate, non-herbal teas, diet drugs, and some pain relievers. - If you can't get to sleep, do something else like reading or listening to music until you feel tired. - Maintain a comfortable temperature in the bedroom. Avoid extremes; a room that is either too hot or too cold can interfere with sleep.
  • Your activity level
    Your activity level
    Do you lead a sedentary lifestyle? While exercise is good for the health of your body, it is also good for brain health. And it may be one of the best and cheapest therapies to help your memory perform better. As we age, our brains shrink, leading to impaired memory. Regular exercise, Heller says, helps keep our brains fat and boosts memory in people of all ages. Research bears this out: Aerobic exercise training is shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, leading to improvements in memory. Scientists who studied older adults found that aerobic exercise training reversed age-related memory loss by one to two years. It doesn’t take much, either: Some experts suggest doing 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise, five days a week. Brisk walking, swimming, and anything else that gets your heart pumping – including yard or housework—qualify. Others say that just walking for 40 minutes three times a week shows increases in the size of the hippocampus and improvement in memory after just one year, even in people who were previously couch potatoes.