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Distorted, mixed-up, and outright false memories can happen to anyone of any age. As our frontal lobes age, however, these types of confused and muddled memories become more likely to happen.

Our frontal lobes help us to pay attention, store and retrieve information, and organize our memories. Older frontal lobes don’t work quite as well as they did when they were younger, requiring us to put in more effort to pay attention, learn new information, and recall information or events.

Here are some common memory complaints. Because the difference between normal and abnormal memory is often related to the extent of the memory difficulties, we note examples of when the memory problems would be considered abnormal.

Forgetting Things

You come out of the mall after several hours of shopping and you have to search for your car in the parking lot before you can find it.

  • Difficulty finding one’s car in the parking lot is one of the most common memory failures. One cause is not paying attention when the memory was being formed—particularly if you were distracted as you were parking or walking from your car, such as if you were talking to a friend.
  • It is not normal to search for your car for over an hour, or to need assistance in finding your car. 

You saw a movie last week that you really enjoyed. You’re recommending it to your friend and you cannot recall the name of the movie until, with effort, you go through a list of possibilities in your mind until you finally get the right name. 

  • Difficulty retrieving information can certainly be perfectly normal, and it is more common as we get older. Cues that can trigger our memory for the information we are looking for typically help, whether it is an external cue (given to us by another person or the environment) or one that we generate ourselves in our minds.
  • It is not normal to fail to recognize information we learned when we are provided with strong cues. So if our friend names the titles of several movies and one of them is the one we saw last week, we should be able to correctly choose it from the list.
  • Not remembering major parts of the plot, could also be a sign of rapid forgetting (assuming that you were paying attention to the movie as you were watching it), which could, in turn, indicate a memory problem.

Your friend is giving you directions to his house. Although the directions are not overly long or complex, he needs to repeat it to you three times before you can remember it. 

  • Needing information to be repeated in order to remember it may be normal for anyone of any age. Older adults typically benefit from repetition more than younger adults. So don’t worry if you need to review information more than once, whether it be directions, a shopping list, or someone’s name.
  • It is not normal, however, to quickly forget information once it has been learned well.

You’re driving a route you have done more than twenty times before, but this time you become lost and cannot get to where you want to go without calling someone for help. 

  • Getting lost and having great difficulty getting straightened out and back on track is always concerning if it is a route that you have done many times before, even if you haven’t driven that route for a while. 


Planning and Organizing
You find yourself looking at the calendar multiple times a day to remember your schedule. 

  • Assuming you have two, three, or four appointments on your daily calendar, it is perfectly normal to need to look at it a couple times in order to remember it.
  • If, on the other hand, you find that you need to look at your schedule many more times than you used to and even then you sometimes get confused and end up in the wrong place or at the wrong time, it is not normal. 


You are looking forward to having lunch with your friend Jackie tomorrow until you look at your calendar and see that it is Joan you are having lunch with tomorrow; you’re having lunch with Jackie next week.

  • It can be perfectly normal to mix up information like who you are having lunch with, and this type of mix-up is more common as one gets older.
  • It is not normal, however, for the memory confusion to lead you to actually show up at the wrong place or time for an event or to miss an event entirely. 


You cannot come back with the correct items from the store unless you write them down and look at the list.

  • Most people need to write grocery items down on a list in order to purchase the correct items. Once you’ve written the list, however, it mainly acts as a reminder or checklist so that you don’t forget an item.
  • If you frequently purchase the wrong items at the store so that you don’t come home with the items you need, or you frequently purchase Items you don’t need because you don’t remember that you already have thirty-four cans of peas in the cupboard, it is not normal.

Losing Things

You spend too much time looking for your keys, glasses, wallet, or purse.

  • If you are now spending much more time hunting items compared to how much time you spent in the past—particularly if it is interfering with your being on time for activities—it could be an early sign of a memory problem.

Recall

You’re meeting with your gardener to discuss what you and your spouse would like to plant. The gardener names ten different types of plants and asks you which ones you would like. You’re about to ask for the list again when your spouse—apparently remembering them all—asks how four of them would look together.

  • If your spouse is an avid gardener, whereas you couldn’t tell a begonia from a rhododendron, it is perfectly normal for him or her to have an easier time remembering a list of plants than you. We all have an easier time remembering information when it is related to things we already know or are expert in.

Although you’ve never been good with people’s names, you now find yourself having such difficulties finding common words that other people are filling them in and finishing your sentences.

  • Word-finding difficulties prominent enough to cause others to jump in and help you out with ordinary words—not just names—is concerning.

Anxiety

You’ve been worried about your memory loss and have begun to feel depressed and anxious about it. Your spouse encourages you to get it checked out, but your best friend thinks it’s not any worse than his and suggests you ignore it.

  • If you are worried about your memory enough that you are becoming anxious or depressed, get it checked out.

Reprinted from Seven Steps to Manage Your Memory by Andrew E. Budson, MD, and Maureen K. O'Connor, PsyD. Copyright © 2017 by Oxford University Press. Published by Oxford University Press.

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