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What happens in a memory test?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

A memory test gives a snapshot of different aspects of how you process and remember things.

There are different types of memory – think of recalling what you watched on TV last night (short-term memory) to reminiscing about a childhood holiday (long-term memory), or adding up your share of a restaurant bill (working memory). The memory test may assess other thinking or cognitive skills, such as abstract representation using shapes, language and communication skills, your concentration and attention skills, and general knowledge questions.

Some of the questions can seem quite basic or easy, and some seem confusing – just go with the flow. Great if you know the answer, and don't worry if you don't.

What do the results mean?

The initial test is a fairly quick question-and-answer test. The questions can seem quite bizarre or disconnected from the real world, but it's used as a screening test. It may suggest that you need further investigations into how your brain works, or serial memory tests can indicate whether your memory is declining. The test doesn't diagnose dementia in itself.

Memory can be temporarily affected, if you have a feverish illness or are very unwell with an infection, for example, and this can be reversed as you receive the right treatment and get better. Memory can be permanently affected, such as an acquired brain injury from an accident, or it can be in gradual decline with the aging process, and ultimately dementia.

I'm worried about dementia. What happens next?

If your doctor has reason to be worried about your memory – either from a screening test or symptoms you or your family has noticed – they will refer you to the local memory service, a one-stop shop to consider whether you have memory problems or dementia. Along with a thorough memory test, they will ask for detail about obstacles you face in your day-to-day life, and instances of not remembering (or family or work colleagues commenting).

They may suggest blood tests and brain imaging called a CT scan to look for changes that could point to dementia.

They will discuss the results with you and your family, and suggest how things could be improved, such as practical solutions at home or occasionally medication. You may be referred for social services to help. And they will give you an idea of what to expect.

Specialists involved in testing memory and looking after cognitive skills include neurologists, geriatricians (or specialist doctors for the elderly), or psychiatrists. You may also come across psychologists, mental health nurses, occupational therapists, social workers, dementia advisors, or charity workers.

When should I see my doctor?

Some people notice concentration problems at work, particularly if they are failing to meet targets or others have commented on a decline in performance. It's worth having specific instances of these. For those who are retired, you may notice that you are putting objects in strange places or losing things, or that you can't remember if you've locked the front door or have actually forgotten to lock it, or leaving the oven or iron on unintentionally.

It might help to bring your partner, spouse, or someone who knows you well to the appointment so that they can help with specific incidents of concern.

How can I keep my mind healthy?

There's an old adage with brain skills that, "if you don't use it, you lose it". Like muscles, your brain needs lots of different stimulation every day to keep active and healthy.

Everyone thinks first of Sudoku or crosswords as a mental workout, and these can help, but keeping up with current news, reading books, talking to people about different subjects, picking up a new hobby or honing an old skill, even travel – the planning and experiencing of a new culture – all contribute towards a healthy brain. Challenging yourself with new and varied experiences is key, especially to prevent Alzheimer's disease. And at the same time, this helps to keep stress to a minimum and happiness and fulfillment to a maximum – all protective factors for your brain.

A good blood supply is key – so stop smoking if that applies, and make sure you're physically active for at least 30 minutes most days. A healthy, well-balanced diet also helps. If you have any long-term conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or depression, keep up with your doctor visits so that treatment can be optimized. All of this will particularly help to stave off vascular dementia.

Getting a good night's sleep can help in the long term. Your requirements may reduce as you get older, but it's still important to factor in rest time for your brain to recuperate and be ready for the next day.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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