|"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
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 4 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 wouild be helpful to start by expalining something about how
memory works. Imagine that one
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 researchs there is still much to be learnt about the way
memory, works, but we already understand quite a let. One usehul way to
think process is to divide them 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 memones are stored.
Dunng 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 when
you met Muriel for the second
time, and you were able to greet her by her 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 ir
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 reas it again, you have to open thee 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 forger. 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
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, j 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?
Your brain needs to throw
away information to avoid overload
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
State of mind
For rather similar reasons, people who are
anxious or depressed often find that their memory functions poorly. They
are preoccupied by 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
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 older. Some of these changes begin quite early in life -for
instance, few athletes and sportsmen continue to break records ahter 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
AGEING AND MENTAL FUNCTION
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 infor-maion more
slowly. Learning new things is more of a struggle for older people,
especially if the infor-mation 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 accuracv 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 under-estimate
HOW MEMORY CHANGES WITH WITH AGE
Psychologists researching how mental
function alters as we age have found that there is a gradual
j 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 of 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
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 withthose of your contemparies rather
than with that of younger people.