It creeps up on you slowly. There’s the classic walking into a room and then forgetting what you came in for; watching a quiz show on TV and unable to find the answer quick enough even though you know it so well; struggling to remember the name of that ‘what’s his name actor’ who was in that film…“oh what was it called…the one with what’s her name…”
These temporary losses of memory will be familiar experiences for most people who have reached a certain age and it’s not surprising that many will feel a pang of concern, wondering, is this the start of dementia?
As people get older, the prospect of developing a disease like Alzheimer’s is what they fear most, even more than heart disease or cancer and the reason is simple: no one wants to lose control of their lives, to be dependent on others, to be a burden to others, especially their children.
The fear maybe a little premature but it is understandable.
The Alzheimer’s Society America says there are already six million people living the disease in the United States
Our ageing population means that the number is set to double by 2035.
It’s a similar situation throughout the world; in the United Kingdom, the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that within the next 15 years, the number of elderly people caring at home for a loved one with dementia in the UK will rise by almost one million.
The problem is so pressing that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seeking cross party support to find ways to provide more help without getting bogged down in political argument.
While politicians and health care experts across the world struggle to find ways to provide the treatments that will be needed, and health insurance companies work out how they can set the correct premiums in a way that people can afford, the onus is left on each individual to do all they can to reduce the risk.
But first, how can we tell whether our forgetfulness is merely a harmless symptom of ageing or indicative of something more serious? After all, even young people can be absent minded. The difference is that when they do forget something, they don’t think anything of it or start worrying that they might be developing dementia.
That relaxed attitude tends to change once we pass 60 or so and something we wouldn’t have thought twice about a few years earlier suddenly starts to appear more worrying.
Harvard University has identified some of the main types of forgetfulness that are quite common and nothing to worry about…unless they become very persistent. Hopefully, they help to put our minds at rest in most cases. These are the main categories that Harvard have identified.
Transience is when you forget almost immediately
This is where you forget information, sometimes almost as soon as you learn it. It tends not to bother us when we’re young but we can worry about it as we get older. A good example would be visiting a museum or going on a trip to somewhere like Disney’s Epcot Centre. The displays will cram our brains with information, much of it interesting and valuable, and yet within days we start to forget it.
This is perfectly normal and happens throughout our lives, not just as we age. It’s actually a good thing because there is obviously only so much information that we can usefully retain. The brain therefore works on the principle that if the newfound facts are not being used, they need to be thrown into the bin so you can you concentrate on the things that matter.
If this didn’t happen, our minds would be full of disparate information with the unimportant being given the same storage space as the valuable and things would get a little crowded and difficult to navigate.
Absentmindedness leads to forgetfulness at all ages
Harvard says: “This type of forgetting occurs when you don’t pay close enough attention.”
This could occur when you put down your glasses for a moment and then forget where you left them. It’s not so much a memory issue as one of lack of concentration because you may have put down the glasses without even thinking about it because you were concentrating on something else at the time. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that you can’t remember where you put them.
Another example might be forgetting someone’s name within seconds of being introduced at a party. The reason may simply be that as you were told the name, your mind was more focused on smiling, hiding your nervousness and giving a good impression.
These things happen to younger people too as I remember only too well.
The point is that these absentminded moments happen to us at all ages, but we only tend to worry about them when we get older.
It only becomes a problem if it happens regularly and involves serious matters, such as forgetting to take prescribed medication. If you find yourself forgetting important matters, then clearly it’s advisable to seek medical help.
Blocking is a temporary inability to remember
Harvard describe this as a “temporary inability to retrieve a memory”. It happens when you’re trying to remember the name of someone you know well or answer a question on TV quiz show but the information just won’t come to you, even though you know that you know it.
The reason according to the scientists is that your mind may be confused by a similar memory to the one you’re trying to recall. This alternative memory or piece of information may be so similar to the one you’re trying to remember that you choose the wrong one, or the confusion between the correct answer and the competing answer may be so strong that it prevents you from recalling either.
An example might be that you’re trying the name of the actor Robert Redford as the answer to a question on who starred in a particular film. You know it but the name won’t come because part of your mind might be thinking of Paul Newman, because you associate them together because they were both prominent, similar looking stars when you were young, and they appeared together in blockbuster movies like The Sting and Butch Cassidy.
The comforting news is that it happens to people of all ages although it is more common as you get older.
Nevertheless, it isn’t necessarily anything to get alarmed about as the blocked memories do come back quite quickly – not quickly enough to be first on the buzzer in a quiz perhaps but usually within a few minutes, or sometimes a few hours later when you’ve stopped thinking about it.
It only becomes something to be concerned about if it becomes more frequent and starts to involve important information about your life and healthcare, as opposed to who was the star of a particular film in the 1970s.
Misattribution leads to changing memories
Harvard describes this as occurring “when you remember something accurately in part, but misattribute some detail, like the time, place, or person involved”.
Typical examples could be remembering some event from your childhood but mistaking who was involved, especially if there were two people at the time with similar characteristics, such as two students who looked similar, or two teachers who taught the same subject or dressed in a similar way. It’s easy to remove the correct person and insert someone you remember as being similar.
This often leads to disagreements between two people recalling the same event, with each telling a slightly different version and disagreeing about who was involved. It’s even possible to falsely include ourselves in the story, imagining we were involved when we were not, especially if the event being recalled was one of several similar events, some of which we were involved in, such as walking to school or attending a concert or sports event.
In extreme cases, misattribution can affect several people with each of them having a false memory as I found in a murder case I covered as a reporter.
Suggestibility leads to inventing memories
This relates to information that we mistakenly insert into genuine memories long after the event or even mistaken inserting ourselves into events even though we weren’t actually involved.
It’s particularly common when look back on our early childhood. We may hear stories of something that happened when we were just three or four years old and then mistakenly insert ourselves into the story, imagining that we there at the time.
If we weren’t there we obviously can’t have genuine memory but as we learn about it from our parents and elder siblings, perhaps see photos of it, we construct a memory and start to believe we were present when it happened.
The Harvard researchers say little is known about exactly how suggestibility works in the brain, but it does fool our minds into thinking it’s a real memory.
A good example of this was illustrated in an experiment by researchers at Washington University.
A group of volunteers were shown an ad for Disneyland that featured Bugs Bunny as one of the attractions. When they were later questioned about their trips to Disneyland as part of the experiment, a third of them said they remembered having seen Bugs Bunny. This was clearly impossible because Bugs Bunny is a Warner Bros character and so is not part of the Disney theme parks.
One of the researchers, Jacquie Pickrell, said: “The frightening thing about this study is that it suggests how easily a false memory can be created.
“It’s not only people who go to a therapist who might implant a false memory or those who witness an accident and whose memory can be distorted who can have a false memory. Memory is very vulnerable and malleable. People are not always aware of the choices they make. This study shows the power of subtle association changes on memory.”
The scientists at Harvard point out that people of all ages experience the kind of memory loss and memory distortions outlined above. They tend to get worse as we get older but unless they become severe and persistent, they are not considered to indicate Alzheimer’s Disease or other memory related illnesses.
However, if you have any doubts, it’s important to seek medical advice.
This is a useful summary from the UK’s National Health Service of early symptoms of the one of the most common and serious forms of dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease.
Symptoms specific to Alzheimer’s disease
- memory problems, such as regularly forgetting recent events, names and faces
- asking questions repetitively
- increasing difficulties with tasks and activities that require organisation and planning
- becoming confused in unfamiliar environments
- difficulty finding the right words
- difficulty with numbers and/or handling money in shops
- becoming more withdrawn or anxious
These symptoms are clearly more serious than the relatively harmless examples highlighted by Harvard and discussed in this article.
If you, or partner or family member, are experiencing issues like these then seek medical help as soon as possible because the sooner problems are diagnosed, the more effective treatment is likely to be. The links below will provide more detailed information and advice.
Useful links to find out more:
Key facts about dementia…you can live well with help
American Alzheimer’s Association Memory Loss Concerns
UK National Health Service Alzheimer’s disease
Study of nuns could lead to new ways of treating dementia
The absent-minded 10-year-old, the mystery theft and the doubtful policeman
If you’re worried about absentmindedness, take comfort from me. I’ve been forgetful since childhood, sometimes with comical if at first worrying consequences.
When I was about 10 years old. I rode my bike to the local shops on an errand for my mother. I parked the bike outside and then forgot all about it when I came back out of the shop and walked home, probably lost in some daydream.
I didn’t think about the bike until a few hours later when I saw it was missing from the shed. I had no recollection of using it that morning and thought it was stolen. My mother went to the police and they came round to speak to me an hour later (yes, this was back in the days when police patrolled the streets on foot and would investigate something as trivial as a missing bike. Nowadays they’d just log the call.).
As the officer was speaking to me, a friend of mine rode up on my bike. He said he’d seen it outside the shop and assumed I was inside. The shopkeeper told him I’d left it there a few hours earlier. My friend realised I must have forgotten it and brought it back as the officer was speaking to me.
Unfortunately, my friend was a bit of a well-known local rogue and the officer immediately assumed he’d stolen it and was now trying to avoid getting into trouble by pretending he’d intended to return it all along. He wouldn’t accept my explanation that I now remembered riding it to the shop that morning. He thought I was frightened of my friend and was lying to protect him.
The idea of a 10-year-old boy being so absent-minded as to forget his bike was clearly not plausible to the officer, who took a lot convincing before agreeing to let my friend go.
It was eventually cleared up and became a story we laughed about years later, with my mother teasing me that I was such an absent-minded daydreamer that I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on.
A town’s false memory of a blood stained ‘murderer’
We don’t just invent memories as individuals; it can happen to groups of people as well.
In the 1990s, there was a campaign to correct a miscarriage of justice in the Derbyshire town of Bakewell.
The case involved a young woman who had been repeatedly stabbed in a church graveyard.
A local man was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Several years later, there were concerns that it might have been a miscarriage of justice with the wrong man being blamed.
Campaigners unveiled several pieces of what they considered to be evidence that someone else was responsible for the attack.
One of these strands involved a “bloodstained man” who several local people said they had seen running away from the scene just after the murder happened. This man was never questioned and was now working as a lecturer at a local university. Campaigners believed there was a cover-up involved but none of them had spoken to this lecturer.
I decided to do so and was surprised by his answer. He confirmed that there had indeed been an incident in which he was seen walking bloodstained through the town, but it was down to being injured in a car accident, not any attack.
He was only 18 when it happened and the crucial point, the accident happened two years before the time of the murder, by which time he had left the town to go university 200 miles away.
The police confirmed his story and said the lecturer had never been part of their inquiry.
It’s easy to see how misattribution had created the false memory. The murder was dramatic, so had seeing a bloodstained man in the street. Once 15 years had elapsed, the two memories became conflated in some people’s minds.
If people can get something as dramatic as this so wrong, and not all of them were old, we perhaps should worry too much about mixing up memories from long ago.
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