Maintaining Memory Skills

Memory“Now why did I just come into the kitchen?”

“Can’t find my other checkbook anywhere in my office!”

“What’s his name again? Starts with an R—Robert, Roger?”

Everyone experiences memory lapses and many of us worry about memory loss. Research tells us that 50-75% of adults over age 50 will experience some degree of memory loss in:

We remember in a 3-step process. Knowing the steps may help us understand how a break-down occurs for us or a loved one. We can then target those processes for improvement.

It is helpful to know what normal memory “glitches” are and when to be concerned if more serious problems exist. The question is best addressed on a 1:1 basis with your doctor but there are some characteristics of typical memory loss over the course of a healthy lifespan.

  1. Transience: Gradual loss of memories that have not been accessed for a long period of time.
  2. Forgetfulness or lack of focus: Difficulty concentrating makes for poorer conditions under which to create new memories or retrieve established memories.
  3. “Tip of the Tongue” syndrome: You know you know, but can’t retrieve a memory just when you need it, especially in conversations or when there is an imposed time limit.
  4. Bias: Memories become increasingly colored by personal experiences and biases as we age.
  5. Misattribution: Accurately recalling some part of an event, but reporting other distorted details. We may remember a famous quotation but quote the wrong speaker. We may share an idea that we are sure is our own, but that we actually read somewhere. The likelihood of misattribution increases as more time passes between the event and retrieval of the memory.


One cause of non-typical memory loss is dementia (progressive deterioration of memory over time; usually does not occur before 60); Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia. Traumatic head injury, stroke and other neurological illnesses (MS, brain tumors, Lyme disease, etc.) may produce memory loss. Thyroid dysfunction or Vitamin B12 deficiency can effect memory skills. Importantly, life style patterns of behavior (lack of sleep or poor sleep, lack of exercise, limited cognitive stimulation, stress and depression) may produce memory problems.


    1. Eliminate background noise and visual distractions; control group settings.
    2. Don’t “multi-task”! It is rarely effective under even the best of conditions.
    3. Repeat a speaker’s message aloud by paraphrasing to confirm the meaning.
    4. Advocate for yourself. Ask others to repeat or clarify and find quiet, stress-free environments in which to interact with them.


Harvard Health Publications. (2000). Improving Memory, Understanding and Preventing
Age-Related Memory Loss: A Special Health Report from HarvardMedicalSchool.
Boston: Gilbert, S.

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