Have you ever walked into a room but can’t remember why? Hunted for your reading glasses, only to find them perched on the top of your head? Drew a blank when you tried to recall a computer password?
If you’re worried these could be the early signs of dementia, then we’ve got good news.
The latest research reveals many of these memory slips are perfectly normal among seniors and even happen to people who are still youngsters.
“When we forget things as we get older, it’s easy to think we are losing it,” says James Goodwin, Chief Scientist at Age United Kingdom. “But forgetting things doesn’t necessarily mean we are on the road to dementia.”
In fact, according to Dr. Laura McWhirter from the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, University of Edinburgh, forgetfulness is very common place for people of all ages.
“People think if you are starting to forget things – something like misplacing your car keys – that is something to worry about. But it’s normal,” explains Dr. McWhirter. “It is just a function of how the brain works and how attention works.”
In fact, understanding how the brain works will reveal why it’s normal to forget things at any age, but especially as you get older.
Your Brain Can Get Too Full
Our brain’s memory banks fill up as we get older, so it gets harder to locate a stored memory, explains neurosurgeon, author and CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta.
These types of memory malfunctions often rear their ugly head when you get those “it’s on the tip of my tongue” moments. The word won’t reveal itself straightaway because your memory retrieval button got jammed; a process called “blocking”.
Dr. Gupta explains that momentary memory blanks are very common and can happen to people at any age. This usually occurs because we’re not paying attention to what we’re doing. If there’s no real focus on what we’re doing, say, when we put our phone down, then no awareness or memory of that action will be created.
Improved Attention Will Improve Memory
“If you paid attention to everything, your brain would be overwhelmed,” writes Dr. Gupta, “so it tries to help by automatically filtering out anything it deems irrelevent.”
So, if you put your phone down and want to remember where, actively focus and observe yourself doing this and a memory will be encoded.
Another memory lapse that can occur at any age is called transience or “use it or lose it”. In memory loss of this type, older memories are cleared out to make room for new ones, so memories will fade over time. If retaining a particular memory is really important, then it needs to be recalled at regular intervals the experts say, otherwise it will eventually be lost.
What’s more, aging weakens connections between neurons which causes the barrage of new inputs we are subject to each day to erase other items from our short-term memory. This means you might forget the name of someone you were introduced to just seconds before.
If it’s important to remember new information, memory experts say this can be achieved by repeating it to yourself over and over again.
This tip can help the younger generation, too.
Over Half the Young Report Memory Loss
When Dr. McWhirter and her team of researchers asked 124 healthy adults with an average age of 23 to rate their memory they were in for a surprise.
A quarter of these youngsters rated their memory as “fair” or “poor.” In fact, half reported that at least once a week, they couldn’t remember why they entered a room or had difficulty finding the right word.
Meanwhile, weekly memory lapses for two in five included misplacing their phone, and for one in five they couldn’t remember where they left their keys or the PIN number for a bank card.
The findings led journalist Tom Utley, aged 67, to joyously write that “young people have no business to sneer at us old folk when we suffer the occasional senior moment. For they’re just as bad.”
Speaking from personal experience Mr. Utley recounted how, when his four sons were living at home, they’d frequently forget where they left their phone charger, their headphones, or the key to their bicycle padlock.
So, if your memory has you feeling older than your years, take heart. By simply paying more attention to what you’re doing, repeating new information to yourself and revisiting your favorite memories, you might end up with a stronger memory than someone forty years younger!