It happened again. I was in a conversation about a topic with which I am totally familiar and I was about to mention the name of a person I know well. I could not remember that name. Deep breath, I told myself. It will come.
It did not come. Well, ultimately it did. The next day I was talking with someone else on a totally different subject and I interrupted my own sentence to blurt out that earlier forgotten name. It totally surprised the person I was talking to, and me too. And it de-railed my new conversation completely.
Does that happen to you? Forgotten names, places and dates? Frustrating tip-of-the-tongue attempts to recall something you know well but cannot remember at all? Of course it happens to you. It happens to all of us. As I move through the sixth year of my sixth decade, it seems to be happening to me more often. We have no family history of dementia, and I test adequately on assessments of mental status, but it still happens — and it's unsettling.
Distractions that re-direct tasks or entirely hijack a situation are particularly irksome. In fact, as I write this, there's a dog barking a few houses away, and I lose my train of thought every time he yelps. He finally stopped barking. Now, where was I?
Research at the University of California Berkley suggests short-term memory problems are associated with our aging brain's inability to filter out distractions. We have a more difficult time ignoring irrelevant information. Researchers used to think it was our "inability to focus."
For me, this distraction theory makes forgetting somehow more defensible. I think it gives us room to maneuver "… an excuse of sorts. Forgetting is still a problem, but it may have more easily instituted solutions. (Excuse me for a moment as I shut the window to eliminate the sound of the once-again yelping pup.)
The original researcher, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, and his colleagues came to their conclusions about how distractions affect memory using a well-designed National Institute on Aging study that involved MRI scanning. Some of the research was done while the subjects (young and old) were in the MRI scanner, so the effect of interference could be pinpointed.
I'm strangely comforted to find out I'm in league with my age-peers in having issues with distraction — and appreciative my more frequent forgetting behaviors are not entirely due to my "lack of focus." I'm grateful to the individuals who volunteered to be rolled into an MRI machine and queried endlessly. Can you imagine having a MRI while the sound of a yelping dog is piped in? (That was not a part of the study, of course, but I'm a little distracted by the idea it may even have been considered).
At this very moment, my visiting 7-year-old granddaughter walks into the room. I read her the column I've just written. She says, "Oh Grandma, stuff like that happens to me all the time."
I thought she would distract me — instead she provides the ultimate comfort.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.