Published on: January 23, 2017
by Tony Dearing for NJ.com:
Have you walked into a room recently, and couldn’t remember what you went there to do?
Do you have trouble remembering names? Worse yet, do you find yourself referring to someone you know well — your spouse, or a good friend — by the wrong name?
The older we get, the worse our memory gets, and the more we worry about dementia.
You may be worrying too much.
Some common forms of memory loss aren’t an indication of Alzheimer’s, or even of old age. If you understand the difference, you can save yourself a lot of anxiety.
“There are people trying to sell the idea that you might be having a memory issue — like pharmaceutical companies or memory care facilities — so that’s what people hear and they go into a panic right away,” says Christine Damon, founder of CareSmart. “I had a lady in her late 80s who was playing bridge absolutely all the time, and once in a while she’d run into someone she’d gone to high school with and she couldn’t remember their name, and she was concerned. I told her, ‘I think you’re OK.'”
Damon was able to reassure the woman, because forgetting names, or mixing names up, is something that happens to people in their 30s and 40s.
For that matter, so is the experience of going from one room to another, only to lose all recollection of what you set out to do.
If either of these things happens to you, relax. They’re not signs of dementia. Recent research has shown they’re something more benign. They occur as a result of the curious ways our brain sometimes mishandles what should be fairly obvious information.
Take, for instance, the problem of not remembering what you walked into a room to do. It’s actually quite common. Psychologists call it the “doorway effect” or the “boundary effect.”
Memories and locations enjoy a particularly powerful association in the human brain. If you’ve ever gone back to the elementary school you attended, or the neighborhood where you grew up, you know what I’m talking about. Being in that physical place triggers strong memories.
But researchers say that works in reverse too. When you leave a physical place, your brain decides the thoughts and memories you had there are less important now, and stores them away.
This brain function is so strong that the simple act of walking through a door can trigger it. Researchers at Notre Dame did a series of studies in which people either went through a door to enter a different room, or moved the same distance, but without leaving the room. Those who passed through a door and into another room had trouble recalling an object in the room they’d just left. Those who stayed in the same room didn’t have that difficulty.
“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away,” says psychology professor Gabriel Radvansky, who led the study. “Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.”
Switching both your location and task can be even more disruptive to memory, researchers found. If you use wifi to print a document, and the printer is in another room, you have a reasonable chance of remembering that when you go to get your printout. However, if you read a magazine article in the den and then go the kitchen for a snack, the purpose of your trip is more likely to slip your mind.
As annoying as this boundary effect may be, forgetting or mixing up names can be even more embarrassing. But it happens often. And it’s not harbinger of dementia, either.
It’s something that begins in our 30s or even sooner. And particularly in the case of calling a family member or close friend by the wrong name, it’s really just a byproduct of the way your brain sorts names and places them in categories.
At least that’s the conclusion of Duke researchers, who looked at five previous studies involving more than 1,700 college students and older adults. Their findings, published last spring in the journal Memory and Cognition, suggested that when a loved one calls you by the wrong name, that doesn’t mean they don’t recognize you, or that it’s some Freudian slip fraught with hidden meaning.
Here’s what’s really happening. Researchers say our brain has reached into the bin of names it keeps for a common group of people, and grabbed the wrong one. Most mis-namings involve people who have the same relationship with us. So we may call one sibling by another sibling’s name. Or a friend by the name of another friend.
But we rarely cross categories when we slip up on a name. For example, you’re unlikely to call a co-worker by the name of a buddy you play golf with.
Innocent as that may be, it doesn’t make it any less awkward when you call your new girlfriend by the name of your ex. Or when your mother keeps calling you by the name of your sister, who was always mom’s favorite anyway.
But at least you have the consolation of knowing it’s a common mistake, and not a sign of Alzheimer’s.
Understanding the difference really matters.
The great paradox of dementia is that we spend way too much time worrying about memory problems that aren’t a sign of Alzheimer’s, but when the real signs present themselves, we may ignore or deny them.
Take the time to learn what’s normal, reasonably harmless memory loss, and what isn’t. That way, you’ll worry less, and be better prepared to deal with a serious memory problem if it does occur.
“That education is just vital, so people can get a better understanding of when they should be concerned,” Damon says. “Just because their brain doesn’t work as fast as it used to doesn’t mean they’re doomed to Alzheimer’s disease or another irreversible dementia.”
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