Have you ever had a week where you seem to be losing your mind? You forget to call an important client back at work. You forget to register for that class, which is now full. You mean to buy that birthday gift for the party on Saturday, but instead you find yourself rushing around like crazy an hour beforehand because, of course, you forgot all about it. Have you ever tried to get through a 10-page brief at work, but find yourself rereading it five times because by the time you get the end, you forgot the beginning? Have you ever reheated your coffee twice and still find it cold in the microwave later that night while making dinner?
If you can relate to any of these scenarios, congratulations, you are totally normal. I recently found myself doing all of these things and more and I wondered if something more serious was going on. One particularly hectic morning I lost my precious (and much needed) cup of coffee while rushing around to pack lunches, make breakfast and get dressed for work. Just as I was heading out the door, I opened the pantry to put something away, and there was my mug of once steaming hot coffee, sitting next to the cereal. When had I done that? Was someone playing a cruel trick on me? How could I leave my coffee there and have no memory of doing it?
Then I remembered it was September. The hardest time of year for parents: New schedules, new routines and new headaches. Soccer practice, music lessons, back-to-school night, deadlines at work, reports to write, phone calls to return. My head was spinning. I realized then that the only thing wrong with my brain was the amount of information I was trying to cram in there, unsuccessfully.
While our lives have become busier and more complicated with work, parenting, caregiving and homemaking, our brains continue to chug along with the same limited capacity for storage and processing speed. As a neuropsychologist, I spend my days listening to my patients describe various examples of cognitive slippage, forgetfulness, inattention, disorganization, problems with motivation and functional problems at work or at school. Sometimes these symptoms are related to an underlying condition or diagnosis, but many times these symptoms are normal, benign and extremely common in the general population.
The human brain does not have a limitless ability to remember information accurately or to pay attention to multiple things at one time. What’s worse, our ability to do these things declines as we get older, starting in our 20s! That’s right folks. Even though the older you get, the more obligations and responsibilities you probably have, your brain becomes less skilled at processing information quickly and less able to learn and remember new information.
Consider this example: On a simple neuropsychological test of processing speed, the average individual in their 20’s can complete this test in about 25 seconds. However, the average, healthy, perfectly normal 70-year old will take 100 seconds to do this same task, more than double the time! On a memory test, the average person in their 20s can recall 11 out of 12 words from a list, while the average 50-year old can only recall 9 words, and the average 70-year old can recall only 7 words.
In short, the human brain is not perfect, and it’s an uphill battle against time and against the constant demands and distractions of our lives. Many of us worry that there is something wrong with us when we find ourselves falling short of expectations or making mistakes at home or at work. The truth is there are many factors which can influence how well we pay attention, learn, remember and function in our day-to-day lives. Before you start Googling your symptoms and self-diagnosing some horrible disease, ask yourself these four questions:
- Am I trying to do more than the average person can reasonably accomplish? It’s always good to look at your environment and your expectations when you find yourself struggling. Are you taking on too much at work? Are you spending too much time surfing the Web or looking at social media? Are your mornings too rushed and hectic? Sometimes making minor adjustments to your routine, such as preparing lunches and laying out kids’ clothes the night before or blocking out chunks of time to return calls or emails for work, rather than being interrupted all day long, can result in improved efficiency, less stress, and in turn, better attention and memory.
- Am I getting enough sleep? Lack of sleep is a very common cause of attention problems in children and adults. If you are not getting adequate, uninterrupted sleep, you will likely not be functioning at your best during the day. Getting better sleep or more sleep is the first adjustment you will need to make to function better from a cognitive perspective.
- Am I exercising? Exercise has proven to be the best thing you can do for your brain health and has both immediate and long-term benefits. Exercise results in immediate boosts in alertness and attention while also lowers your risk for dementia later in life.
- Am I enjoying my life? Mood problems like depression, anxiety, stress, grief or trauma often results in cognitive problems such as inattention, trouble getting tasks started or completed, and memory problems. Sometimes cognitive problems can even appear as the primary symptoms of a mood disorder. Getting proper treatment often results in improvements in cognitive functioning.
So, when is it time to get help?
Although many of our mistakes, memory lapses, bad days, trouble sleeping and slip-ups are normal and no cause for alarm, sometimes these issues can be related to a more serious condition. When do you know it is time to seek professional help? Consider these three questions:
- Are your friends and family noticing changes? Often times when there is a true cognitive or emotional disturbance, others around you will notice a change in your usual level of functioning. Talk to those around you and listen to their observations and concerns.
- Are you having trouble with basic activities of daily living? If you are having trouble with driving, paying bills, taking medications, cooking, cleaning or performing small chores around the house, you should discuss these concerns with your doctor. Changes in basic activities of daily living (ADLs) could be sign of something more serious.
- Are you feeling sad or anxious most of the day, more days than not? Everyone has a bad day now and then, but if you are feeling sad, depressed, unmotivated, anxious, etc. most of the time, more days than not, for approximately two weeks, it’s time to talk to your doctor.
Although a neuropsychologist can help diagnosis or rule-out cognitive problems or mood disorder, you can always start by talking to your primary care physician. They can assist you in making any necessary referrals.