If you’ve moved into middle age and beyond, it happens with increasing frequency: You see an old acquaintance and you can’t remember her first name. Or, you open a closet, then you can’t remember what you came to retrieve. Most of us find these lapses annoying, sometimes frightening. Is it normal?
Is My Forgetfulness Normal?
Many people worry that their forgetfulness foreshadows dementia. But it’s actually quite normal to forget things from time to time. Furthermore, neurologists tell us this kind of forgetfulness happens to nearly everyone as a normal consequence of aging.
Just because you are slightly more forgetful with age doesn’t mean you are at risk of Alzheimer’s or other memory-impairing illnesses. Healthy people can experience memory loss or memory distortion at any age. Examples include:
- A temporary memory block (on the tip of your tongue)
- Recalling a memory but misattributing some details
- Memory influenced by past experience and bias
Here’s a chart that helps explain what’s normal and what’s not.
Between normal aging and dementia, other situations, conditions, and diseases can produce memory loss: infections, tumors or blood clots in the brain, nutrient deficiencies, head injuries, and some medications. There’s also a temporary condition called “hospital delirium,” which commonly affects hospitalized older patients, comes on rapidly, and may seem to mimic dementia.
If you have concerns about your own diminishing memory or that of a loved one, consult a doctor.
How Can I Improve My Memory?
We all have our favorite mnemonic devices
People of all ages throughout history have used many types of mnemonics, tricks that help the brain organize information and later trigger memories. Here’s a fact sheet listing a few classifications of mnemonic devices. You probably have some of your own.
For example, I sometimes use this acrostic to remember the classification system for living organisms: Dear King Phillip Came Over For Good Soup (Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). We help children memorize the alphabet with the A,B,C song. It uses the powerful tools of rhythm, melody, and rhyme. (I still use still find myself silently humming it from time to time when I’m trying to alphabetize a list or find something on an alphabetized list.)
The science of brain plasticity tells us that even in advanced age, the brain can learn and make new connections. People can use a wide array of tricks and strategies to keep their brains active and aid memory.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the method of loci (aka memory palace, memory room, memory theater, and mind palace), which hearkens back to ancient Greece and Rome. It continued until the printing press enabled people to “remember” (i.e., store and retrieve) complex sets of information through books. It’s recently emerged as the technique successful “memory athletes” use for the rapid recall of huge sequences of information. Memory champions have used it to remember impossibly long sequences of information, such as a shuffled deck of cards, or pi to 100,000 places.
The idea is to tie each item in a sequence of items you want to remember to a visual cue created by imagining yourself walking along a familiar route—through a home or other building, around a specific room, along a road—and placing each of the items in a specific place along the way. When you want to remember the information, return to your palace and “see” the items one by one as you walk your familiar route.
Here’s a short animation about this method. Give it a try!
Nothing at all
Finally, a note about a memory-training idea guaranteed to please almost everyone: doing nothing.
It’s a well-researched technique psychologists call “wakeful rest.” Nothing could be simpler: After learning some new information, just sit back in a dim space and do nothing for 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t go over the new learning in your mind, don’t try to remember it, don’t think, don’t move around. Just sit quietly with your eyes closed.
Researchers say it takes a while for new learning to settle into the brain for later retrieval; a period of non-productive rest helps consolidate the new memories and move them into longer-term storage.
The formation of new memories is not completed within seconds…[but that] further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.
One final note
Although research is ongoing, science has yet to confirm conclusively that mnemonic devices, “brain games,” cognitive exercises, and puzzle-solving can forestall or treat dementia. Again, if you have concerns about your forgetfulness, do consult your doctor.