“At 80, We Understand We are Extraterrestrial”
Crabby Old Lady on (Literally) Dying of Boredom

A Reason Old People Forget Things

About ten days ago, I wrote about being so forgetful now that I had gone to the store with only one item in mind and got home with six other things but not the apples I intended.

According to the number of comments, I have a lot of company. I was particularly interested in this idea from three readers:

”My theory is that our minds are like a closet stuffed so full it is hard to find the blouse you are looking for.” - Lisa

“Maybe we 'forget' because our minds are clearing space so we can be more in the present moment...” - Susan

“As my daughter succinctly put it: 'You've got too much flotsam and jetsam up there.' I liken our brains to a sponge - so when it gets supersaturated stuff starts to fall out when it can hold no more. Anyway, that's my theory and I'm sticking with it!” - Lola

They are right, you know, and it's not just me saying so; science has my back. A while agp, I had written about some studies with the same conclusion and can't find it now but I tracked down the information elsewhere online:

”Older people do not decline mentally with age, it just takes them longer to recall facts because they have more information in their brains, scientists believe,” [reports Sarah Knapton, science correspondent for Britain's The Telegraph].

“Much like a computer struggles as the hard drive gets full up, so to do humans take longer to access information, it has been suggested.

Researchers say this slowing down it is not the same as cognitive decline.

“'The human brain works slower in old age,' said Dr. Michael Ramscar, 'but only because we have stored more information over time.

“'The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they simply know more,'” he says.]”

And here's another interesting thesis to go with that: One of the standard tests for mental capacity may be inadvertently skewed in favor of young people because it asks test subjects to remember unrelated pairs of words such as necktie and cracker.

Prof. Harald Baayen, who heads the Alexander von Humboldt Quantitative Linguistics research group where the work was carried out said: 'The fact that older adults find nonsense pairs harder to learn than young adults simply demonstrates older adults’ much better understanding of language.

“'They have to make more of an effort to learn unrelated word pairs because, unlike the youngsters, they know a lot about which words don’t belong together.'”

These results are preliminary, of course, and need follow-up work but it is nice to think so. And I like that elder intuition was ahead of the researchers.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Janet Thompson: It's St. Paddy's Day and I've Never Forgotten Mavis


Back in my working days, our IT people would suggest running a "defrag" if our computers slowed down. If I remember correctly, the defrag would reorganize the information saved so the computer could retrieve data more efficiently and thus run faster. I always thought it would be nice to be able to defrag my brain in the same way.

I've always been forgetful, even at 6 years old. I could never remember poetry or things we were told to memorize in school. I just have a brain that doesn't focus all that well, it goes off on many tangents so I never have that fear that oh my God I can't remember this, it must be dementia.

The best Alzheimer tests are the SAGE ones from the University of Ohio's website. They don't use memory as a criterion.

"I always thought it would be nice to be able to defrag my brain in the same way."

Agree, Cathy. Great thought.

Defragging your brain won't help. You have to delete stuff you no longer need. Therefore, I have completely deleted everything in my head older than 40 years. Goodbye 50's, 60's and 70's.
JFK who? Tie-dyed what? There was a black and white TV?

My computer has a "Disk Clean-up" command. I need one for my brain.
Actually, I think it is a brain over-ride that is allowing me to live more fully in the moment.

Years ago, when I started having trouble finding the right word, I visited my internist with my complaint. She ran me through a battery of tests, and laughed. "your mind is just fine, you are doing too much and trying to keep track of it all with a full brain." Less stress, more fun, you'll be fine, was her prescription.

So many of the "explanations" and "predictions" used about age are disheartening. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of depression.

So let's choose a different self-fulfilling prophecy, like the cheerier one offered here.

It's William James: if it makes life better, try believing it.

I agree. Just think, when we were kids, and we wanted to go out of the house, we ... went out of the house. Sometimes without even bothering to put on shoes. When we got older, okay, we had to carry keys and a wallet. That's it.

But now? We have keys and a wallet; plus a phone and a camera. Plus glasses -- reading glasses, distance glasses, maybe sunglasses too. We likely carry an iPad or a kindle, and an extra sweater in case it gets cold. We go out of the house like we're pack mules setting out across the desert.

We have so much to keep track of, it's no wonder we forget things!

I tell myself that the "delete" key is working when I can't remember something. Someone once said,"when an elder dies, another library has closed." I like that.

Tom Sightings explanation is so on target--we need a "Just-in" case packed and the ready each time we leave the house--however, if I had one I'd miss the exercise i get going from house and garage and back again every time I go anywhere.

But have there been any studies that separate out the kinds of memory we find ourselves dealing with?

Are remembering a name in the midst of a fairly calm gabfest with friends relating something and remembering to turn off the stove the same function of a brain?

Is forgetting a list just read to you the same process as forgetting the one item you went to the grocery for--consider the difference in stimuli--the list is accompanied by other communication (probably a stressful experience) between you and a Dr.--and returned to at a later time.

The item you thought of going to the grocery for was followed by getting yourself ready, getting the items for your "Just-in" case, driving to the grocery, encountering other people, possibly speaking to some, having a plethora of physical sights, sounds, smells with all the color and hype of advertising thrown in.

And, never mind all the thoughts that brain had during all that time. "I need to pick up a hammer at the hardware store, wonder if I can do that job myself? How much does a hammer cost? Oh, the
new deli has opened, I must call Nellie to meet
me tomorrow to try it out. This stop light is way
too long. I must be living right, there's a parking spot right in front of the grocery."

So, distractions are a bit of a problem for us? We
have to be more single-minded in our endeavors?

Maybe we need a way to switch off the distractions we can control--I guess, that is meditation practice--which I don't do it regularly enough to benefit.

Sometimes when older people can't think of a word,they say, I'm having an oldtimer's
moment. A college student I was talking to once said, It happens to younger people too. We call it a sometimer moment.I stopped blaming age and just mutter the ageless, Oh sh--.

I agree with all that’s been said here and "remember" saying similar things to nursing home residents as a volunteer advocate many years ago.

But now it’s me and I hate it!

My son (age 52) and I devoted some time to making a lengthy list of items needed at a hardware store and also removed a cabinet door to take along as we looked for a match.

As we got out of the truck after the five-mile trip to the store, we had no list and no door sample. He though I brought them. I thought he did.

After the embarrassment subsided, we decided there was no need to duplicate our trip to grab the list. We agreed we could remember every item and had a good mental image of the door sample.

We remembered everything perfectly. Go figure. Does being embarrassed sharpen the mind?

One thing that I want to add is that I have found that my brain works better when my body is at it's optimum best. My best is no longer all that great so thinking is no longer all that great either.

If I am feeling well and have a tiny smidgen of energy I don't forget things. But if I am tired or stressed I can't put one sentence together without having to stop and search for a word.

The worst part of that is, I can no longer find the word after seeking it and I end up having to substitute another word (if I can think of one.)

It's logical that the brain works slower when we are old because every part of our body slows down. Why should thinking be any different?

"May you never forget what is worth remembering, nor ever remember what is best forgotten." -- Irish Blessing

And Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Saturday’s TGB included a video on the Fifties. I recognized every one of the slides and have stories to go with most of them. My whip smart younger relatives are not encumbered with this depth of information on the Fifties and beyond. No wonder they are better at remembering random lists.

@ Darlene I have noticed and experienced the same thing..When I spent a month in a nursing home last year, following major surgery, I felt awful, was in pain and I thought "I really belong here!" with all the other forgetful people

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