Forget worrying about memory lapses

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Having trouble remembering a word during a conversation? Outside of some embarrassment and annoyance, there's probably no need to worry.

When made by young adults, memory errors are usually ignored, but when the same errors occur in older people, they are ascribed to everything from a "senior moment" to the specter of Alzheimer's. A new University of Michigan study puts perspective on the types of memory errors that sometimes affect older people. Study participants were all healthy and between the ages of 65 and 92.

Participants were asked if they experienced any of 35 memory errors listed on a questionnaire. The No. 1 memory error, cited by 61 percent of the participants, was difficulty remembering a word that was on "the tip of the tongue." And while older people may worry about it more, this memory slip is common to all age groups.

"Tip-of-the-tongue errors plague everybody," says Cindy Lustig, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan and senior author of the study. Lustig, who has led several studies on age-related changes in brain structure, says an occasional problem remembering a word is usually not serious, but other problems with words may be.

"If you notice somebody starting to use more generalized words on a consistent basis instead of specific words, it's something we start to worry about," she says. An example of this is "defaulting" to the word "bird" instead of a more specific word such as "goose." This problem could degenerate into serious word-recalling difficulties well known to caregivers of a person suffering from dementia, who find it hard to ask for everyday items such as a cup or plate. "It becomes 'the thing' -- get me the thing from the cupboard," Lustig explains.

Study participants also commonly experienced memory errors such as forgetting where they put an item or having to reread a sentence because they couldn't remember what they read. These errors are usually not serious, she says.

Lustig has noticed that when it comes to remembering appointments to appear at her lab for a research project, older folks are better than their younger counterparts. But this has more to do with experience than memory. Younger adults think they can rely on their memory, and are often late or forget to show up. Older adults, who have learned not to trust their memories, write everything down. "Older adults are always on time and never miss an appointment," she says.

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