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Does Forgetting Words Signify the Beginning of Alzheimer's Disease?

Has your memory failed you today, such as struggling to recall a word that's "on the tip of your tongue?" If so, you're not alone.

Forgetful senior manRecent University of Michigan research indicates that "tip-of-the-tongue" errors happen often to adults ages 65 - 92. In a study of 105 healthy, highly educated older adults, 61 percent reported this memory mishap.

The study's participants completed a checklist of the memory errors they had experienced in the last 24 hours, as well as several other tests. About half of them reported making other errors that may be related to absent-mindedness, such as having to re-read a sentence because they forgot what it said, or forgetting where they placed an item.

The findings, which appeared in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, may help brain-training programs target the memory problems people experience in daily life.

"Right now, many training programs focus on the age differences in memory and thinking that we see in laboratory studies," said Cindy Lustig, University of Michigan psychology professor and the study's senior author. "However, those may not translate to the performance failures that are most common in everyday life."

According to Lustig, when people are tested in the lab and have nothing to rely on but their own memories, young adults typically do better than older adults. "When we looked at how people performed on standard laboratory tests, we found the usual age differences," she said. "People in their 80s and 90s performed worse than those in their 60s and early 70s." 

However, when these studies are conducted in real-world settings, older adults might even outperform young adults at things like remembering appointments, because seniors are likely to use memory supports such as calendars, lists and alarms. The researchers found no increase in the "real-world" memory errors, based on age.

This research may help brain-training developers better target the errors that people make even if they are using memory supports. Said Lustig, “We wanted to identify which errors still occur despite changes people might be making in their environment and routine.”

Lustig reported that occasionally forgetting a name or word is not a sign that an elderly person has early-stage Alzheimer's disease or another type of dementia. "Everybody forgets," she said. "However, our findings suggest that certain types of memory errors may be especially important to monitor for increases, which then should be discussed with a clinician."

Source: University of Michigan. The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

Learn More

Which memory errors might indicate a problem? There’s an old saying: “If you forget where you left your car keys, that’s normal. If you forget what the car keys are for, call your doctor.” Read the National Institute on Aging online factsheet "Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help" to learn the facts about normal age-related changes in memory vs. those that might indicate a serious problem.

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