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Keeping track of time, holding onto memory

Consumer Reports News: April 08, 2011 07:38 AM

How big a deal is it, if you can’t remember the year or month? A new study says it could be a good predictor for dementia or other memory problems.

Doctors have long used questions about time to help identify whether someone may be confused because of a medical problem, such as delirium or dementia. But what’s uncertain is how much significance they should give these lapses. Does every mistake mean you may have a problem?

Doctors in Ireland interviewed 262 people over age 65, who were in the hospital for treatment or a check-up. They were asked a number of questions about time. Separately, a different researcher gave them a mental health assessment. The doctors then compared the two sets of results.

A mistake in identifying the year was the best single indicator of confusion. Asking people the year picked up 86 in 100 people with dementia or delirium, while only 6 in 100 people without these problems got the year wrong (except within a few days on either side of a new year).

Asking people both the month and the year made the test slightly more sensitive. Identifying people who made a mistake in either the month or the year would pick up more people who had dementia or delirium, although it would also give more false positives, by wrongly picking up more people without these conditions.

Bottom line. If you (or someone you care for) are having trouble remembering the month or the year, it may be time to ask a doctor to assess your memory. This will help identify any medical problems that might need treatment.

Orientation to time as a guide to the presence and severity of cognitive impairment in older hospital patients [Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry]

Anna Sayburn, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

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