Memory Test Time! 6 Common Memory Lapses and What They Mean
Our brains play games on us — so don't panic if you forget a name or misplace your keys. Bottom line, not every lapse is the start of Alzheimer's. Here's a primer on what's normal, what's not, and — most importantly — what you can do about it.
A study found that the average person forgets three things a day!
We’ve all been there: You walk into a room and can’t remember what you came for. Or perhaps you find yourself stumped trying to come up with the name of a friend you saw just last week. And who can count how many times you’ve arrived home from the store only to realize you missed the one item you needed most? Often it’s not just the frustration of forgetting that bothers you; it’s that nagging feeling that your brain isn’t working quite the way it should.
If you’re getting older (who isn’t?) or have watched a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, short term memory loss might make you fear for the health of your mind. In reality, memory is a complex system that sometimes makes mistakes. “There are many reasons why somebody could have a disturbance in their memory and that does not mean they have Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Jane Rylett, professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, and a lead for the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging. Here are a few of the most common memory loss scenarios, with a behind-the-scenes explanation of why it’s happening and what you can do to prevent it.
Memory Loss 1
You come out of the mall after running a long list of errands and realize you have no idea where you parked.
You might notice your memory fails you more often during times of busyness and stress. Maybe you’re facing down a lot of deadlines at work or trying to get through a lengthy to-do list before racing home to make dinner — whatever it is, you’re unable to encode memories. “When we are stressed, we are often preoccupied and distracted, and unable to focus or concentrate on the incoming information,” says Dr. Nasreen Khatri, a registered clinical psychologist, gerontologist and researcher at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto. Khatri says many people fall prey to the myth of multitasking.
“We may feel like we’re doing two things at once, but in reality, we’re engaged in rapid task-switching, which doesn’t allow for effective encoding of information. Ongoing task-switching is similar to a state of constant distraction, and doesn’t allow for the effective processing of information,” she says. Khatri explains that any type of chronic stress — be it from multitasking, life changes or general anxiety — leads to an elevated level of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impair brain function when it’s chronically elevated. “That level of stress leads to low mood, anxiety and problems with concentration, attention and consolidating new learning.”
You may have a long to-do list, but your brain will work best if you take it one item at a time. Khatri recommends practicing meditation and mindfulness. “Take a moment to slow down with some deep breathing — a calmer state improves attention and concentration,” she explains, adding, “If you are trying to encode something very important [like a phone number], double-check that you got it right.”
Memory Loss 2
You’re trying to help your kid with homework and discover you’ve forgotten some of the key concepts you learned in school.
Don’t beat yourself up about it. Rylett says that the brain changes over time, remaking nerve connections to reflect the way you use it and to make those commonly used parts more efficient. It’s called plasticity. “As you use different parts of your brain, those parts become more functional and work better,” she says.
Unfortunately, that also means that when you don’t use certain parts, they might not work as well. But just because you can’t remember dates from history class when they come up on Jeopardy doesn’t necessarily mean the things you learned in school are gone forever. For instance, if you used to speak a second language but stopped, you’re likely to find that if you study that same language again, it will come back to you more easily as those old connections slowly return to use.
Using your brain makes it stronger. If you want to be able to teach your kids fractions, practice those concepts, whether it’s with a textbook or baking a half-batch of their favourite muffins. And the more different types of learning you pack in, the more brain connections you’ll form.
Memory Loss 3
Your cousin remembers the fiasco at your aunt’s funeral completely differently than you do.
It’s common for people to remember an event differently, or to remember different parts of it, particularly when that event was an emotional one. That’s because our brains pay attention to things that are uniquely relevant to us and our experiences. Lisa Feldman Barrett, university distinguished professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions Are Made, explains that our brains don’t simply react to the situations in which we find ourselves; they actually attempt to predict them, using past experiences to make educated guesses about what’s going to come next and what’s going to be significant for us in the future. Because learning new things uses valuable energy, guessing which information will be most relevant helps the mind work more efficiently.
“Your memory is not a record of what happened,” Feldman Barrett says. “Brains have to be judicious about how they spend their resources, and that means you’re not going to learn everything; you’re only going to learn some things. If you remember an event that was very evocative, it’s because, for some reason, your brain thought that was important information to encode.”
Feldman Barrett also says memories may differ based on your current state. “When the brain remembers something from the past, neurons work together to ‘reinstate’ a past event,” she says “So every memory is a construction that can be influenced by the current state of a person’s body and what is going on around him or her.”
So, if you felt something your relative said was hurtful, it may stick with you. But your cousin, who didn’t feel that way, might not have spent her attention on that and therefore may remember the situation differently.
Take your memory with a grain of salt. You’ll never be able to go back and capture a perfect picture of what really went down, but you can make positive memories going forward by creating warm moments you won’t want to forget.
Memory Loss 4
You haven’t been feeling well, and while taking care of yourself it appears you completely forgot to water your plants, which are withered and dry.
Your physical and emotional health are interconnected with your brain health, so if your body is not in top shape, your memory isn’t likely to be either. Rylett says that many health issues, from nutritional deficiencies to infections, can lead to disruptions in memory.
When people are deficient in B12, a vitamin that’s key to the brain’s energy use, they can have trouble remembering. Poor thyroid function can also cause memory disruptions due to hormonal imbalances. Thyroid hormones affect metabolism, which controls how all our organs — including the brain — use energy, so a thyroid hormone imbalance can mean the brain doesn’t use energy properly. And dementia-like confusion can sometimes be a symptom of a urinary tract infection later in life. “It’s probably because there are inflammatory mediators being produced in the infection that can get into the brain,” says Rylett.
Mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety also play a role. Rylett explains that because nerve cells in the brain use chemicals to communicate, the chemical imbalances associated with mood disorders can cause interference, disrupting processes like memory.
Take care of your overall health in order to care for your brain. A nutritious diet and plenty of exercise are some of the top things experts recommend for your mind. And, if you notice a sudden change in your memory, head to a doctor. It could be a sign of a physical ailment.
Memory Loss 5
You leave the house as a new mom with your baby in one arm and a diaper bag in the other only to realize later that you totally blanked on packing the diapers.
Many women complain of memory loss after giving birth or around menopause, and Rylett says there is definitely a hormonal connection — researchers just don’t understand it yet. Khatri agrees that women can sometimes experience cognitive changes around a major hormonal shift, but notes there are many compounding factors at these stages in a woman’s life that could play a role. “Hormonal changes, as well as sleep deprivation, fatigue and the stress of a new role may contribute to new mothers’ experience of temporary changes in attention and concentration,” she says.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University recently proved in a study conducted on mice that sleep is needed to “recalibrate” the brain in order to help store memories. Another study conducted on mice found that five hours of lost sleep leads to impaired connectivity between neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. In menopause, women lose sleep again (thanks to hot flashes and other changes) and may find themselves stressed.
Sleep aside, midlife is generally a busy time for women because of aging parents, kids at home and a full work schedule. All of those competing demands can leave little room for the focus required to properly encode memories.
Hormones are hard to change, but stress and sleep are somewhat within your control. Seek help when life gets crazy, begin a mindfulness practice to help you better manage stress and be sure to work a full night’s sleep into your schedule.
Memory Loss 6
You can’t figure out how to make your grandma’s classic apple pie that you’ve made a million times — even when the recipe is right in front of you.
When you notice you’re having trouble with everyday tasks, like following a recipe or paying bills, or you realize you’re forgetting things you just did and asking the same questions over and over, something more serious may be going on with your brain, and it’s a good idea to see a doctor. Though Rylett says it can be quite difficult to diagnose Alzheimer’s early on — after all, there is no simple blood test, just behaviours to look for — researchers are working on ways to take images of the brain to detect the disease.
If you were to look at a brain with Alzheimer’s, you’d see a plethora of amyloid peptides that slowly form plaques on the brain, interrupting the ability of nerve cells to send signals. Eventually, as the disease progresses, the mind actually begins to shrink. A few medications are available that Rylett says can help some patients for a period of time (for some, a couple of years), but they don’t actually slow the progress of the disease; they just help the brain work around it. That’s why the best treatment is prevention.
“Even with a family history of Alzheimer’s, at least a third of the risk of developing dementia is modifiable by lifestyle factors,” says Khatri. “Genes alone do not determine cognitive destiny.” Care for your brain with heart-pumping exercise and learning that challenges you, both of which Feldman Barrett says help to build new brain connections and keep the old ones healthy.
Women are at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Learn more.