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6 Types of Normal Memory Lapses and (Why You Needn't Worry About Them)

Maybe it starts with simply forgetting something. You can't remember where you left your car keys or the birthday present a friend gave you just a month ago.

Then comes the worry.

Is your forgetfulness a sign of something serious? Memory lapses happen to most of us, to different degrees, as we age. Even experienced public speakers have their "oops" moments, when a word or term they use every day simply refuses to come to mind.

While such common memory lapses are frustrating, they don't necessarily mean you're losing your marbles. If your lapses aren't disrupting your life, there's most likely no need to worry, experts say. 

The key issue is whether cognitive changes significantly interfere with daily activities," says Kirk R. Daffner, chief of the division of cognitive and behavioral neurology at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. If that's happening, you should consult your doctor. Your lapses may well have very treatable causes. Severe stress, depression, a vitamin B12 deficiency, too little or too much sleep, some prescription drugs and infections can all play a role.

Even if those factors don't explain your memory lapses, you don’t need to simply resign yourself to memory loss as you age. Studies have shown that people who exercise, stay mentally active, socialize regularly and follow a healthy diet can minimize memory loss.  

Are You Familiar With These 6 Types of Normal Memory Lapses?

Where are your keys? Or why did you just walk into the kitchen? These common (and normal) blunders usually stem from lack of attention (you simply didn’t pay attention when you put your keys down). But "if you've lived on a block for 10 years, and you walk out the door and get lost, that's much more serious," says Debra Babcock, MD, of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The word is right on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t think of it. Eighty-somethings have these episodes twice as often as 20-somethings, according to a 2020 article in MIT Press Reader. "When you get older, you have to call in the troops to help you remember things," Babcock says. Older people have more information in their brains. When you can’t call up a word or name, other info could be blocking it.

A good friend tells you over dinner at a restaurant that she has a new job. Later you recall the news, but you think she told you during a phone conversation. Misattribution may happen in the hippocampus — a brain region crucial in the formation of memories of events. Scientists estimate that after age 40, the brain loses about 5 percent of its volume every decade; the hippocampus is one of the most affected parts.

Fading away
Memories do fade. The more time that’s passed since an experience, the less likely you are to recall all the details. It’s fairly easy to remember what you did a few hours ago. But recalling the same events a month or years later is considerably more difficult. This basic "use-it-or-lose-it" feature of memory known as transience is normal at all ages, not just among older adults.

Your memories are not carved in stone. As you learn new things about an event you remember, you may add those details to your memory of it. If you were the victim of a hit-and-run, say, you might only have seen that it was a dark blue car. But later, after the police catch the runner and tell you it was dark blue Honda Accord, you may add that detail to your own memory and swear that you had known it all along.

Your personal beliefs, opinions, even your mood at the time of an event shape your memory of that event. Imagine that you once spent a night in the hospital as a child. You were afraid, so you remember the nurse’s voice as deep, low and frightening. But family members who visited you at the hospital tell you that in reality the nurse had a soft, comforting voice. Your bias about hospitals colored your memory of the nurse. —Mary A. Fischer and Sonya Collins

Want to learn more about memory loss? Discover the Memory Loss – Is it Inevitable? challenge from Staying Sharp.

Do you sometimes wonder if forgetful moments, like misplacing your keys, are normal? Learn how the mind forms and retrieves memories with the Memory Loss — Is it Inevitable? challenge.

Start exploring Staying Sharp today.