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

Getting Forgetful? Try This Memory Checkup

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.

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."

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