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I Remember Whatchamacallit

March 28, 2024

By Susan R. Healy

Our two presumptive presidential candidates are senior citizens who have suffered from memory lapses that have triggered speculation that they are too old for the job. Of course, with the amount of talking they do in front of cameras and microphones, it is easy to catch them searching for a word or blanking on a name. Do these slips mean that they no longer have the mental acuity it takes to serve as President? Not necessarily.

There are different types of memory loss. In the most serious form, the information isn’t available because it has been permanently lost and inaccessible to the individual. This is the type of memory loss that is associated with dementia.

The pause that results when the right word or name goes missing in action is commonly referred to as the “tip of the tongue” experience. The person grasps for information that is known, but just beyond their reach. Often, the information comes to mind shortly after the initial block. This inability to recall information that remains stored in one’s memory is a retrieval issue, and it happens to people of all ages.

As a young lawyer, I could never remember the parol evidence rule. I had no problem remembering the rule itself, I just couldn’t remember the name for it. When I needed to access that information, I’d make a panicked call to my lawyer friend Bob, and we’d have a conversation that went like this:

“Bob, what’s the name of that rule I can’t remember?”

“The parol evidence rule.”

“Right. Thanks, Bob.”

This was clearly a memory lapse, and a recurring one at that. However, given my age at the time, it could hardly be called a “senior moment.”

Memory storage and retrieval requires both biological and behavioral processes that work together to implant the memory and create the connection that allows it to be recalled when it is needed. Biological brain changes start around age 40 and become more pronounced in older brains. The result is a slower retrieval time.

Even in younger learners, retrieval ability typically declines as new, competing memories are acquired and stored. Stress, lack of sleep or exercise, poor nutrition, and some prescription medications can all also affect retrieval. In seniors, all those factors combine with the age-related changes in the brain. However, as Johns Hopkins geriatrician Sevil Yasar, M.D., Ph.D., explains, “we all have moments when a name or the title of a movie is right on the tip of the tongue, but those events are different from the kinds of lapses that may be warning signs for dementia.”

There is also evidence that memory retrieval gets better with practice. Each time we successfully retrieve a memory, our connection to that memory is reinforced, and the information will be more easily retrieved in the future. Relying on our spouse, smartphone, or our friend Bob to fill in the blanks for us whenever we hit a mental roadblock removes the need for us to work through the retrieval process to access the information from our own memories. Such shortcuts interfere with the reinforcement process, making it less likely that we will remember the information in the future. As we age, we need a little patience to let our brains work through the connection when we experience a lapse to help us remember the next time.

Another good way to avoid retrieval blocks is to take the time to create a strong cue when the memory is formed. This could be a word association, an image, or a sensory perception. The cue connects new information to something that is already known and easily recalled. However, this technique requires focus when the information is acquired and stored. It won’t work when we are multitasking. Multitasking is the enemy of memory at any age.

So, does this type of memory lapse disqualify older presidential candidates from office? Probably not. A healthy older brain retains its ability to learn and store new information; it is the retrieval of specific facts that may be harder. This could disqualify a senior for some positions that require an individual to quickly recall facts relying solely on their own memory – an airline pilot, for instance. However, high level executives – such as U.S. presidents – have a staff to research and supply information to them, and their decisions are not made off-the-cuff, but rather after planning and careful consideration. The good news for senior presidential candidates – and for senior lawyers – is that studies show that an older brain is more likely to arrive at the correct answer than a younger one, even if it takes us a little longer to get there.

By the way, I’m now 40 years older and no longer a young lawyer, but I had no problem retrieving “parol evidence rule” without having to call Bob. Good job, old brain!

The following sources were used in this article:

Copyright ©2024 Susan R. Healy