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When is losing your house keys a normal part of aging, and when does it signal the early stages of Alzheimer's? A new tool called the "Everyday Cognition" scale, or ECOG, helps to pinpoint the difference, says University of California, Davis, psychologist Sarah Tomaszewski Farias, PhD, who led the scale development team.

ECOG consists of 39 questions about a person's ability to complete common tasks, such as keeping track of a conversation or shopping for a few items without a list. It's completed by a spouse or someone else who knows the older adult well.

According to a study published in Neuropsychology (Vol. 22, No. 4), ECOG differentiates between people with mild cognitive impairment and normally aging adults.

The test's future applications are what really excite Farias, who will use it in a longitudinal study to see if a person's trouble with any particular area of everyday functioning signals future dementia.

"It will help us try to anticipate what kind of changes people will experience and identify what kind of assistance older adults need," she says.

-S. Dingfelder