Why Your Memory Needs a Once-a-Year Check-Up

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Although memory loss is a normal part of aging, for some it can signal dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why, beginning at age 65, a brief memory assessment should be included during your annual wellness visit with your doctor. Recommended and covered under Medicare, the five-minute memory test checks your ability to handle day-to-day activities, explains Geetha Ambalavanan, MD, FAAFP.

Why Is a Memory Check-Up Important?

Mental decline happens slowly. You may not notice it; family and friends who see you often may not notice it either. A series of simple memory tests can alert your doctor to early stages of dementia, or to other reversible reasons why your memory may be slipping. 

What Happens During a Memory Check-Up?

The memory check-up should be a part of your annual wellness check. “We’ll ask you some questions. We’ll ask you to draw the face of a clock that indicates a particular time. We might give you three words and ask you to repeat them a few minutes later,” explains Dr. Ambalavanan. “Your responses give us a lot of information about your brain function, whether you’re thinking clearly, and if your decision-making skills are as sharp as they should be.”

It’s normal to forget a person’s name, or to misplace your keys or glasses. But when confusion or forgetfulness accelerates, it can be dangerous. Examples include:

  • Forgetting to take your medications
  • Getting lost while driving or walking in a familiar area
  • Not keeping appointments
  • Forgetting to eat
  • Asking the same questions repeatedly
  • Putting items in inappropriate places, like putting your phone in the refrigerator

What Happens If You Test Poorly?

Less than favorable results don’t necessarily signal dementia. “We’ll do some more tests to determine the cause,” says Dr. Ambalavanan. “It could be due to your medications, a vitamin deficiency, depression, or a medical problem that has not yet been diagnosed. If we rule out these other possibilities, we’ll arrange for more detailed testing, called neuropsychological testing, to determine the extent of your impairment.”

Steps You Can Take

If you’re 65 or older, it may be beneficial to request a “cognitive assessment” with your wellness appointment. Although it may be standard for most physicians, and it is covered by Medicare, not every doctor automatically checks your memory without other signs or symptoms of memory loss. 

Seniors who live by themselves are at a higher risk of not being diagnosed, says Dr. Ambalavanan. “A family member may call and ask: ‘How are you doing? Is everything going okay?’ They may assume mom or dad is going to the doctor and taking their medications, but that may not actually be the case.” That’s why caregivers should be alert to possible changes in behavior, and ensure that a cognitive assessment takes place at every wellness appointment.

There are things you can do to help slow the progression of memory decline, says Dr. Ambalavanan. Beginning in your 40s and 50s, or sooner, she recommends:

To learn more about memory decline and testing, talk to your doctor or health care provider or search for a provider.

It's easy to get the care you need.

See a Premier Physician Network provider near you.