The memory gap

This blog entry is about… wait, the word is on the tip of my tongue… it’s… um, ummm… no, that’s not it… wait, I’ll think of it in just a few seconds… what was I saying?

Once we hit middle age, it becomes an increasingly familiar scenario: Words – and especially names – are more elusive. Retrieving a factoid from the databanks of the brain, a task that we used to accomplish in a millisecond, takes longer. It’s harder for us to concentrate. We forget stuff.

Does this mean we should start worrying about the onset of dementia? Or is this just part of the normal aging process?

A study that appears in the latest issue of Science sheds some interesting new light on how the brain remembers. Working with monkeys, researchers at the University of New York were able to identify the parts of the brain involved in remembering the sequence of events within an episode.

Two main areas of the medial temporal lobe – the hippocampus and the perirhinal cortex – appear to play the main role in integrating “what” and “when”.

This study was carried out with monkeys, so its application to the human brain is limited. It adds some insight, however, to the complex mechanics of memory and which parts of the brain might be involved in memory-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

There are many reasons, of course, why people find it hard to remember things, and dementia isn’t invariably the main culprit. Stress and distraction can cause people to lose their train of thought. Conditions such as hypothyroidism, depression or fibromyalgia have been linked to so-called brain fog, or difficulty with concentration and memory. Ditto for cancer-related cognitive dysfunction, aka chemo brain, which is reported by many people who are undergoing or have completed cancer treatment and can cause problems with word retrieval and mental multi-tasking.

In an article a few years ago, Time magazine went so far as to call forgetting “the new normal.” The main point: Some degree of memory decline happens to everyone as they get older.

The good news, according to the article, is that “science is as interested in what’s going on as you are.”

With better scanning equipment and knowledge of brain structure and chemistry, investigators are steadily improving their understanding of how memory works, what makes it fail, how the problems can be fixed – and when they can’t.

For most people, all this will mean reassurance as worrisome symptoms turn out to be nothing at all. “Normal is the new frontier,” says Mony de Leon, director of the Center for Brain Health at New York University Tisch Hospital. And for those who do drift beyond that frontier, the same research may offer new hope for treatments and even cures.

How can we tell the difference between what’s normal forgetfulness and what isn’t? This online quiz can help distinguish typical memory problems from those that might signal something more serious.

Most people, as they age, will occasionally forget names or appointments only to remember them later, the Alzheimer’s Association says. What’s not normal is to experience memory loss that interferes with daily life, or to forget something and to be unable to recall later that you’ve forgotten.

A helpful rule of thumb from the brain and memory experts: If you’re worried that you’re losing your memory, your awareness of the problem is most likely a sign that your capabilities are still normal.