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Losing a day here and there is normal

I've misplaced a day — or almost. Has that ever happened to you? Hope your response is a hearty chuckle and immediate recall of the time you lost a Wednesday. Or was it Monday?

Last week, I lost Monday. It was about a holiday weekend that merged into the work week without my full consideration of my calendar — usually a very good memory aid for me. Tuesday felt like Monday. I caught myself just in time to ensure that I did not miss an important conference call, but I did submit my column a day late — make that two days late. And the garbage barely got out for its weekly pick-up.

I probably should not share all this so openly. If I am ever diagnosed with a major memory problem, there will be a series of columns that track my personal forgetting issues over time. It's slightly embarrassing for me — but potentially useful in any effort to better understand memory difficulties in aging populations.

Let me start with the reminder that memory issues come with aging. It's perfectly normal to open the refrigerator and not be able to recall what you were looking for — perfectly normal to forget the name of a friend you have not seen for a while. Or even a friend you saw just last week — was it Monday?

When I offer classes on managing memory difficulties, I often start with a story. It goes something like this. Two older adults — women — are driving down the street, chatting away. The driver goes through one red light and the passenger thinks, "Omigosh, she just went through a red light." Then it happens again.

It happens a third time and the passenger is really rattled. She turns to her friend and says, "Mildred, do you realize we just went through three red lights!" Mildred turns toward her passenger and says, "Oh "… am I driving?"

Maybe that illustration prompts another hearty chuckle. But some of you may also think, "I can relate to that." Because it is not that atypical to be driving along, less focused on the actual act of driving than you should be because you are distracted by a conversation, a song on the radio or a loud noise from the car behind you.

One of the big reasons behind forgetting as we age is "distraction." It is well supported in research that distraction will intervene to affect the ability of older adults to remember information. A loud noise or a conversational interruption is almost guaranteed to make us mildly forgetful and a little scattered.

According to experts at U.C. Berkeley, "Difficulty filtering out distractions impacts a wide range of daily activities, such as driving, social interactions and reading, and can greatly affect quality of life. The inability to ignore irrelevant information is at the heart of many cognitive problems accompanying aging."

Note to self. Think "focus" and "filter."

I need to stay aware of the potential for and the unsettling effects of distraction on recall ability. I'm going to conclude that distraction was my primary reason for losing an entire day last week — must have been all those fireworks. Next week looks like it will be just fine — all seven days of it.

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 s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.