You can’t find your glasses, keys or the right word. You forget an appointment or name of a familiar pet, object or person. You’ve already forgotten the name of the nice person who was just introduced to you a minute ago.
Many short-term memory problems can be attributed not so much to the ability of the brain to retain information, but the ability of the person to live in the moment and focus on a single task. Were you really listening when you were introduced to the nice person or were you actually thinking about what to say to him/her?
For many people in middle age or older, simple acts of forgetfulness like these can be scary because of our heightened awareness of the possibility of onset dementia or the uber dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.
But Alzheimer’s is not the only health issue that can lead to forgetfulness. Memory loss can happen at any age and for a number of reasons. Many medical conditions can interfere with memory but so can your mood or attention or level of interest.
Memory loss culprits also often include, diabetes, hormonal changes, marijuana smoking, cancer treatment, taking medication, taking multiple medications, sleep deprivation, obesity, hypertension, stress, high cholesterol, depression, mineral deficiency, or even, as I like to say, simply information overload.
Fading memories will happen to all of us at some point in our lives. It will affect each of us differently and happen at different rates of speed. Some of these losses will be temporary, others permanent.
Below is a republished summary of a Harvard Report about different types of ordinary forgetfulness. Some are attributed to advanced age, others to simply being human:
Absentmindedness This type of forgetting occurs when you don’t pay close enough attention. You forget where you just put your pen because you didn’t focus on where you put it in the first place. You were thinking of something else (or, perhaps, nothing in particular), so your brain didn’t encode the information securely. Absentmindedness also involves forgetting to do something at a prescribed time, like taking your medicine or keeping an appointment.
Transience This is the tendency to forget facts or events over time. You are most likely to forget information soon after you learn it. However, memory has a use-it-or-lose-it quality: memories that are called up and used frequently are least likely to be forgotten. Although transience might seem like a sign of memory weakness, brain scientists regard it as beneficial because it clears the brain of unused memories, making way for newer, more useful ones.
Blocking Someone asks you a question and the answer is right on the tip of your tongue — you know that you know it, but you just can’t think of it. This is perhaps the most familiar example of blocking, the temporary inability to retrieve a memory. In many cases, the barrier is a memory similar to the one you’re looking for, and you retrieve the wrong one. This competing memory is so intrusive that you can’t think of the memory you want. A common example is calling your older son by your younger son’s name, or vice versa.
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Scientists think that memory blocks become more common with age and that they account for the trouble older people have remembering other people’s names. Research shows that people are able to retrieve about half of the blocked memories within just a minute.
Misattribution Misattribution occurs when you remember something accurately in part, but misattribute some detail, like the time, place, or person involved. Another kind of misattribution occurs when you believe a thought you had was totally original when, in fact, it came from something you had previously read or heard but had forgotten about.
As with several other kinds of memory lapses, misattribution becomes more common with age. Age matters in at least two ways. First, as you age, you absorb fewer details when acquiring information because you have somewhat more trouble concentrating and processing information rapidly. Second, as you grow older, your memories grow older as well. And old memories are especially prone to misattribution.
Suggestibility Suggestibility is the vulnerability of your memory to the power of suggestion — information that you learn about an occurrence after the fact becomes incorporated into your memory of the incident, even though you did not experience these details. Although little is known about exactly how suggestibility works in the brain, the suggestion fools your mind into thinking it’s a real memory.
Bias Even the sharpest memory isn’t a flawless snapshot of reality. In your memory, your perceptions are filtered by your personal biases — experiences, beliefs, prior knowledge, and even your mood at the moment. Your biases affect your perceptions and experiences when they’re being encoded in your brain. And when you retrieve a memory, your mood and other biases at that moment can influence what information you actually recall.
Although everyone’s attitudes and preconceived notions bias their memories, there’s been virtually no research on the brain mechanisms behind memory bias or whether it becomes more common with age.
Persistence Most people worry about forgetting things. But in some cases people are tormented by memories they wish they could forget, but can’t. The persistence of memories of traumatic events, negative feelings, and ongoing fears is another form of memory problem. Some of these memories accurately reflect horrifying events, while others may be negative distortions of reality.
People suffering from depression are particularly prone to having persistent, disturbing memories. So are people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can result from many different forms of traumatic exposure — for example, long term verbal and/or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or wartime experiences. Flashbacks, which are persistent, intrusive memories of the traumatic event, are a core feature of PTSD.
Here is a neatly package list of Alzheimer’s Disease warning signs that we all can benefit from being aware of:
Scientists don’t know exactly how people develop Alzheimer’s, but they believe it is caused by a combination of genes and environmental factors. In other words, it is a multifactorial disorder.
The early-onset forms of Alzheimer’s are inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means that only one parent has to pass down a defective copy of the gene for their child to develop the disorder.
Healthy people can experience memory loss or memory distortion at any age. Some of these memory flaws become more pronounced with age, but — unless they are extreme and persistent — they are not considered indicators of Alzheimer’s or other memory-impairing illnesses.
So, what can you do about protecting and healing your memory?
It’s normal to forget things from time to time, and it’s normal to become somewhat more forgetful as you age, but it’s not normal to forget too much. But how much forgetfulness is too much? How can you tell whether your memory lapses are within the scope of normal aging or are a symptom of something more serious? Talk with your doctor about concerns you may have about your memory, so the condition responsible for your symptoms can be addressed. Discussing your symptoms and taking various tests might help your doctor determine what is affecting your memory.
Keeping the rest of your body healthy is a crucial way to preserve your memory. Eat less red meat and more veggies, consume alcohol conservatively. Vitamins B and E and the minerals calcium, magnesium and (small amounts of) zinc help me sharpen up when I feel my mind is becoming dull. Staying physically and mentally active turns out to be among the best prescriptions for maintaining a healthy brain and a resilient memory.
By Dr. Cathleen Carr JD PhD, Executive Director, CertifiedCare.org