Forgetting first words in list may signal mental decline
Researchers at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, in Orangeburg, N.Y say they may have found an early indicator of mental decline: Forgetting the first few words in a longer list. They believe that’s more reflective of mental decline that not remembering words in the middle or the end of a list.
The study examined 200 people between the ages of 60 to 91 who initially showed no signs of dementia or psychiatric illness. The participants were read a list of 15 words five times and told to memorize it. After 20 minutes, they were asked to remember the list. In a follow-up four years later, the participants who had been unable to remember the first words on the list were more likely to perform poorly on a cognitive test than those who could remember the beginning of the list.
Generally, a healthy brain is more likely to remember the earliest words on the list - which is called the primacy effect - than words in the middle of a list, as memorizers often go over the words at the beginning of the list more often. This primacy effect is thought to be controlled by the hippocampus, the part of the brain which controls memory. But when someone is unable to remember the words at the beginning of the list, this could raise a red flag for future mental decline.
This type of test could help doctors catch mental decline at its earliest stages and provide treatment to prevent further decline.