by Michael Kabat, PhD
It’s happened to almost everyone at one time or another: you walk into a room to get something, and then can’t remember why you went in there. You’re introduced to a new coworker, and can’t recall his name five minutes later. Is this normal absentmindedness, or a sign of a more serious memory problem?
In many cases, scenarios like these are less related to memory problems and more to lack of attention or focus. Perhaps you were distracted by another thought when you walked into that room, or you didn’t give your coworker your full attention when you were introduced.
The formation of a memory takes place in a system of stages; if you’re not giving your full attention in stage one, by stage three that memory is probably already slipping away.
However, if you find yourself becoming increasingly absentminded, others start to comment on your forgetfulness, or it has begun to disrupt your life, you may have a problem that warrants a professional evaluation.
Many people believe memory loss is a natural part of aging, but in fact it is not; in many cases it is due to another condition that affects brain functioning such as injury, dementia, an acquired condition or a neurological illness. The only way to know for certain is to have a functional memory evaluation.
Functional memory evaluations provide a structural evaluation of the brain and help us determine how an injury or medical condition has affected brain function. Interestingly, two people may suffer damage to the exact same area of their brains, yet the “functional consequences” — the way the damage impacts their functioning — may be completely different.
So even when we can see that there is a problem with the structure of the brain, the functional evaluation is the gold standard for diagnostic purposes and for determining how that impairment will affect an individual. In other cases, people may have completely normal EEG or imaging studies, yet there is still a microscopic problem that is identifiable through a functional evaluation.
Functional evaluations are noninvasive and not painful for patients. In fact, most find them not only tolerable but somewhat enjoyable. While they require time, the most common “negative side effect” is fatigue.
Once we have the results of the functional evaluation, we can use that as a baseline for patients whom we believe would benefit from memory remediation. While remediation is not helpful for someone whose memory is severely impaired, these techniques have been scientifically proven to improve memory in people who have or are beginning to experience memory loss.
We utilize a targeted, individualized approach to improving patient’s functional status through particular techniques and brain “exercises” that have been shown to be effective in improving memory function. Most patients improve after six to ten sessions of remediation therapy. Additionally, research has found that gains achieved during remediation are generally maintained over time.
In addition to brain exercises, we also help patients understand how their brain works and lifestyle changes they can make to help keep their brains healthy, such as getting regular exercise and eating a low-fat diet.
Remediation does not completely reverse memory loss, but it can teach patients how to compensate for their impairment and keep the brain functioning better and longer than without treatment. It has demonstrated particular efficacy when utilized in conjunction with medication therapy for memory loss and cognitive symptoms.
While remediation is still in its infancy, in the next eight to ten years we expect it to become the standard of practice for treating memory impairment, as it has shown as much promise as medication in keeping memory functioning.
This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Michael Kabat, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.