Alzheimer’s or Absentmindedness?

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By Ian Wiseman

Understanding normal forgetting

Have you ever been in the embarrassing situation when you are about to introduce a friend you have known for many years and then can’t remember their name? Known as ‘the tip of the tongue’ phenomenon, the good news is that it is a normal part of forgetting.

Today, in developed countries, people are living longer. We are living in era of down ageing with 70 being claimed to be the new 50. For example, at the age 60 Sean Connery was proclaimed “Sexiest Man Alive” by People Magazine and at age 69, he was voted “Sexiest Man of the Century”.

However, the downside of living longer is the fear of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease lurking in the background. This has sparked a search on how to keep the brain as sharp and as fit as possible and even though ‘Brain fitness’ is not a recognized medical term it is an extremely popular concept. If you Google the term you will be offered just on six million results.

It is important to distinguish between Alzheimer’s and forgetfulness. George T. Grossberg, Professor of Geriatric Psychiatry at St. Louis University School of Medicine says, “Someone who misplaces their keys and gets frustrated and runs around looking for them may be absentminded. On the other hand, the individual who misplaces their keys doesn’t know they are lost and then forgets what they are for; that’s a much different level of impairment.”

Normal forgetting:  Why do we forget?

There are three important reasons why we sometimes fail to bring to mind a desired fact, event, or idea.

They are transience, absent-mindedness, and blocking1.

1.         Transience refers to a weakening or loss of memory over time. It is probably not difficult to remember now what you have been doing for the past several hours. But if asked about the same activities six weeks, six months, or six years from now, chances are you’ll remember less and less.  

2.         Absent-mindedness involves a breakdown where attention and memory meet. Absent-minded memory errors – misplacing keys or forgetting a lunch appointment, typically occur because we are preoccupied with distracting issues or concerns and don’t focus attention on what we are doing at the time. Because we did not concentrate and encode the event properly in the brain we are unable to recall it later.

3.         Blocking, known as ‘the tip of the tongue’ phenomenon, is failing to produce a name to accompany a familiar face, for example. This frustrating ‘tip of the tongue’ experience can result in the name only being retrieved hours or even days later. You experience a feeling of mild anguish while searching for the word or event, and then a sense of relief when the word is found or the event recalled.

And so for many it comes as a relief that normal forgetting can be explained and to know that their cognitive ability is in good shape.

More good news…

Scientists now suggest that older people do not decline mentally with age; it just takes them longer to recall facts because they have a lot more information stored in their brains over time. Much like a personal computer struggles as the hard disk drive gets full, so to, do older people take longer to access data.

These are preliminary findings only but it is a good story and I am going to stick with it the next time I fail to recall that elusive name or my wife’s birthday.

1The Seven Sins of Memory.  Daniel Schacter


“Every man or woman would live long,
but no man or woman would grow old.”
Jonathan Swift

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