I'm always forgetting people's names. Only last week I met someone who used to live just down the road. I knew exactly who she was but I couldn't remember her name. It was so embarrassing. This is happening to me more and more often these days. And I worry about it. Is it going to get worse? Am I getting Alzheimer's disease or going senile?
This sort of complaint is very common. Many people find that, as they get older, their memory seems to become less and less reliable. Perhaps, like the person speaking above, they meet someone whose face is familiar yet they are quite unable to remember their name.
The problem with memory is often most severe when it comes to remembering people's names. But someone whose memory for names is unreliable may also be aware of lapses of memory for other things. They may find it difficult to remember appointments, tasks that need to be done, what to buy when out shopping, or where they have put their keys or their spectacles. When slips of memory occur frequently, it isn't surprising that people become worried. They may come to believe that they are going senile or beginning to develop Alzheimer's disease. While it is true that a deterioration in memory can sometimes be an indication of something serious, there is often a much simpler explanation. If you (or someone close to you) are having trouble remembering things, we hope that the first three chapters in this booklet will help you understand what is going on, put the problem in a proper perspective and make it easier for you to cope.
HOW YOUR MEMORY WORKS
Perhaps it would be helpful to start by explaining something about how memory works.
Imagine that one you morning a friend introduces you to a woman called Muriel Pritchett. Later that day you bump into her again. "Hello, Muriel, you say, "We met this morning." It is obvious that you have remembered her name. But how?
Despite a great deal of scientific research, there is still much to be learnt about the way memory works, but we already understand quite a lot. One useful way to think about memory is to divide the process into three stages.
Registering new information
The first stage of memory requires that you register the new information. When you were introduced to Muriel, you took note of her name and her face. Your brain absorbs this information and then transfers it to the part where memories are stored.
During the second stage your brain files away new information. You stored Muriel's name and appearance from the time of your first meeting until you encountered her again.
The third stage is the retrieval of this information from the part of the brain where it was stored. In our example, this stage occurred when you met Muriel for the second time and you were able to greet her by name.
All three stages must take place for your memory to work. If any of them had failed, you would have been unable to recall Muriel's name at your second meeting.
In many ways, the process is like putting a letter away in a filing cabinet so that you can refer to it in the future. Think of the letter as the new item of information. First, you have to realise that you may need it again. Second, you must store it in a safe place. And third, when you want to read it again, you have to open the right drawer of the filing cabinet and get it out. If you don't notice the importance of the letter in the first place or fail to file it correctly, you won't be able find it when you need it again.
TYPES OF MEMORY
Psychologists believe that there are several different kinds of memory, each of which is used for storing different kinds of information. The part of our memory that we use for storing facts, such as people's names, is separate from the part that we use to store knowledge of how to do things. This explains why some people who have difficulty in remembering names have no problems remembering how to use a tin-opener or operate a television set.
We all forget things - indeed, our memory couldn't work properly otherwise. Forgetting can be a useful process in which information that is no longer important is discarded. It wouldn't be sensible to clutter up your brain with memories of everything you bought in the supermarket last week, for example. Your brain makes decisions all the time about what to remember and what to forget. It stores what it considers is important and discards what it thinks is trivial. But everyone’s brain makes mistakes from time to time and sometimes things which are significant get forgotten.
All memories tend to fade as time passes. Facts used every day stick in the memory while items of information that are seldom needed are harder to recall, for example, most people can remember their own telephone number but if they need to ring the doctor, they have to look up the number in the phone book.
Recalling a fact or an event keeps that particular memory fresh and makes it easier to remember on future occasions. Conversely, facts that are never used are gradually forgotten. How many dates can you still remember from your history lessons at school?
THINGS THAT INTERFERE
The efficiency and accuracy of our memory depend on the circumstances in which we are using it. As we explained earlier, to store a piece of information in the memory, we first have to pay sufficient attention to it to register and absorb it. All sorts of things can interfere with this crucial first stage of memory.
If we are confronted with too much information at one time, we may find it impossible to recall much of it later. At a social occasion, we meet lots of new people, but afterwards it is often difficult to remember their names or much else about them. This is because there was so much information that our capacity to register and store it was overloaded.
People who are very busy may find themselves forgetting things simply because they have so much on their minds. If a person's life follows a well-ordered routine, fewer demands are made on their memory than if their life is varied and stressful.
State of mind
For rather similar reasons, people who are anxious or depressed often find that their memory functions poorly. They are preoccupied by their inner feelings and are too distracted by them to pay enough attention to new information to register it properly.
Older people whose hearing or vision is poor may have problems remembering things because their disabilities make it more difficult for them to register and absorb information.
Physical illness, particularly in older people, can also have a damaging effect on mental function. People who suffer from a chronic condition, such as heart disease or diabetes, may find that their thinking and their memory are not what they were. The reasons for this are not yet well understood, but the stresses of having to cope with illness, especially if the condition is painful, are bound to take their toll.
AGEING IN GENERAL
Every part of the body changes as we get olden Some of these changes begin quite early in life - for instance, few athletes and sportsmen continue to break records after the age of 30 or so. Already their muscles, joints, hearts and lungs are performing less well than they were.
Different parts of the body age faster than others, and individuals differ in which parts show the effects of age first. For instance, some people develop osteoarthritis and need a hip replaced, while others become increasingly deaf and have to wear a hearing aid.
AGEING AND MENTAL
It is important to realise that just as our bodies change as we get older, our mental processes change too. Our reaction time tends to increase and we process new information more slowly. Learning new things is more of a struggle for older people, especially if the information is presented too quickly or in an unfamiliar way. This is because older people tend to find it more difficult to divide their attention between two things at once, and harder to ignore information which is irrelevant to the task in hand. As we get older, we become more concerned with accuracy than speed. This sometimes makes us slower when we carry out a job. But ageing is not all bad news. Research has shown that older people's greater experience may lead them to develop more efficient ways of doing things, which can outweigh their loss of speed.
Indeed, old people often underestimate their abilities.
HOW MEMORY CHANGES
Psychologists researching how mental function alters as we age have found that there is a gradual change in the way our memory works. One example of this is in the ability to remember a series of numbers for a short period of time. While young people are able to hold a sequence or seven or eight numbers in their heads for a minute or two, most people over the age of 60 or so can only manage to retain a sequence of five or six numbers. You may have noticed this yourself when you have been dialling a telephone number. Our capacity to remember names seems to be especially vulnerable to the effects of age. When it comes to remembering factual information such as what was said in a conversation, the contents of a television programme, or how to do something, most older people manage perfectly well.
Older people who are losing confidence in their ability to remember should take account of the fact that their memories contain much more than the memories of younger people. To go back to an earlier example. their filing cabinets are fuller. At the age of 70, the filing cabinets of memory contain information gathered over a period of time twice as long as those of a person aged 35.
Looked at in this way, it isn't so surprising that older people are slower to retrieve memories and absorb new facts. So, if you are worried about your memory, it makes sense to compare your performance with that of your contemporaries rather than with that of younger people.