Why Memory Lapses Are Not Always a Cause for Concern

I asked Dr. Mario Mendez, director of behavioral neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at U.C.L.A., about age-related memory problems, but he corrected my choice of words: “I’d say ‘memory changes,’” he said. “And that does not translate necessarily into a problem.”

In a study of nearly 50,000 people, researchers found that short term memory peaks around age 25. But starting in your fifties, Dr. Mendez said, the area of the brain in charge of memory retrieval is less efficient. Still, “being less efficient is different from impairment,” he said. So if you’re struggling to remember “that movie starring that guy,” the memory is often there, Dr. Mendez said — it just takes longer to surface. “And then lo and behold, five minutes later, you remember,” he said.

Forgetting your car keys or someone’s name is often seen as a brain malfunction, but it’s not, said Dr. Ronald Davis, professor of neuroscience at the Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology. We are inundated with so much information each day, said Dr. Davis, and the brain has to manage memories. “Forgetting is a normal part of one’s brain function,” he said.

Just because memory changes are normal, it doesn’t mean that you can’t try to improve your memory, said Dr. Arman Fesharaki-Zadeh, an assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. Instead of using recall-enhancing tricks (like the one I tried in the supermarket), a few lifestyle changes may help.

First, Dr. Fesharaki-Zadeh said, limit multitasking. It’s not good for your brain health in general, but as we get older, our capacity to multitask “typically diminishes,” he said. “I tell patients, ‘try to do one thing at a time.’”

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