the brain

You’re Not Losing Your Memory. You’re Just Distracted.

Julianne Moore in Still Alice. Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

I am constantly misplacing my keys and I am pretty terrible with names, and sometimes, I wonder: At what point do these little flaky moments of forgetfulness become something to worry about? In a recent interview with Newshour, Lisa Genova — the neuroscientist and author of Still Alice, now an Oscar-nominated film starring Julianne Moore — answered that question, as it’s one she apparently hears all the time. She briefly explained how medical experts can tell when memory issues become troubling:

So the signs are like, you can’t remember the name, and then you don’t have the first letter, you don’t have the number of syllables. It doesn’t then just pop into your head an hour [later] while you’re driving down the street. It’s not going to come on the tip of your tongue, ever. Keys, you can’t find the keys and when you do, you don’t remember what they’re for. Or you find them and they’re in the refrigerator or somewhere strange. 

For most of us, though, these types of memory slips aren’t something to worry about, Genova said. Even the average, healthy 25-year-old will experience moments like these three or four times a week; the difference is that the forgotten name will soon be recalled, or the keys will eventually be found between the couch cushions. It’s less likely that these things are being caused by a degenerative disease at all; for younger, healthy adults, distraction is the real issue. “Most of us, when we can’t find our keys, it actually isn’t a memory problem, it’s an attention problem,” Genova said. “You’re doing five things at once and you never actually paid attention to where you put them in the first place.” Guilty. 

When a Memory Problem Becomes Worrisome