That's Not How to Assess Cognitive Ability, Experts Say

A diagnosis requires a battery of tests, not questions by a special counsel, neurologists say
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 10, 2024 5:35 PM CST
Forgetting Dates Indicates Nothing, Neurologists Say
President Biden arrives at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, for Mass on Saturday.   (AP Photo/Stephanie Scarbrough)

Memory is fallible for everyone, at any age, experts say, partly because it just can't store all the information we take in. That makes forgetting an important strategy, per the Washington Post. So how do you know whether confusion or a lapse in memory is indicative of a serious mental decline? "You don't," Dr. David Loewenstein, a cognitive neuroscience and aging expert, told the New York Times. Such a diagnosis is not based on forgetting when someone died; it requires a series of sophisticated and objective tests that assess different types of memory, language, executive function, problem solving, and spatial skills and attention.

The report by the special counsel who investigated his handling of classified documents said President Biden comes across as an "elderly man with a poor memory," saying he couldn't recall the date his son died when interviewed. That's common, even among neurologists. "If you asked me when my mother passed away, I couldn't necessarily tell you the exact year," said Dr. Paul Newhouse of Vanderbilt Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, per NBC News. That sort of forgetfulness isn't a predictor of who will have memory disorders, he said. And people handle traumatic events differently. Matt Griffin, 54, of Vancouver, Washington, said he recalls what he did the night his father died but not the date. "The thing I know that is ever present is my dad is gone, and I miss him," Griffin said.

"Forgetting an event doesn't necessarily mean there is a problem," said Dr. John Morris, a neurology professor. And although recalling information can become more difficult over time, decision-making and judgment can actually improve with age, said another expert. Loewenstein, who reaches no conclusions without administering a long series of objective tests, said not even an expert should diagnosis a person they haven't seen in a medical setting, per the Times. He criticized pundits "who would have the audacity to make diagnoses by saying, 'Oh, this person went to the refrigerator and forgot why,' or 'Oh, they substituted somebody's name for another name when they have other things on their mind.'" (More memory loss stories.)

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