Memory Lapse or Alzheimer's? Multi-Tasking Fuels Forgetting

SAN DIEGO — Those twinges of forgetfulness that appear to be getting more pronounced may worry you. After all, the statistics are scary: Every 70 seconds, someone in the USA develops Alzheimer’s. But every lapse isn’t a signal that your memory is kaput.

Cheryl Edwards-Cannon, 57, says she relies on Post-it notes and spiral notebooks to help her remember, since she’s multitasking “the majority of the time.”

Edwards-Cannon, of Belmont, Mich., is married and works for a company that manages charter schools. She travels 10 to 15 days a month. She also oversees care of her father, who is in assisted-living, and her mother, who suffers from dementia and requires a different place, four miles from her father’s.

“When I think I’m being overly forgetful, I have to give myself a timeout. ‘You need to take a deep breath here,’ ” she reminds herself. “I keep a spiral notebook in both cars so if something should click, I can write it down in the moment. I write it down or use the recording device on my cellphone, like ‘Remember to pick up Aqua Velva for Dad.'” There are many reasons for memory lapses: aging, stress, lack of sleep, distraction, inattention and disease. There’s a lot coming at us, and sometimes we may feel like we’re on information overload.

“Distraction may be just a very important factor that goes hand-in-hand with multitasking,” says Suparna Rajaram, a psychology professor at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, N.Y.

Whether new information sticks is “very dependent” on how much you focus, she says.

“Even if you’re distracted when remembering, you may be all right, but if you’re distracted when learning, you pay for it,” she says.

Rajaram is among researchers presenting new findings on memory at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting, which opens today in San Diego. About 14,000 psychology professionals are expected to attend the four days of presentations.

Researchers are finding out more every day about the awareness that we call memory. Decades of studies have shown that the ability to remember something from the past — what the experts call retrospective memory — is just part of the story. Those who study the intricacies of the mind are also discovering the key role of prospective memory, which involves intentions for the future — often where we find our memory fails us the most. Although we may be preoccupied with warding off Alzheimer’s (the most common type of dementia) with tactics such as exercises or word challenges, researchers are trying to uncover just why our memories fail and how we can keep our minds sharp.

“People are trying to multitask more than they used to, but they don’t have to keep as many things in memory as they used to, because they have electronic devices that do that,” says psychology professor Nelson Cowan of the University of Missouri-Columbia. “Overall, I’m not sure whether this is training our brains or letting them go lax.”

Normal effect of aging

Cowan is presenting research on “working memory,” which is the small amount of information that we can hold in our minds at any moment. The limit on what we can remember varies by situation; a study he published earlier this year in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science has found that normal adults can remember about three or four chunks of new information (letters, digits or words) at a time, in a matter of seconds.

Angela Karwoski, 48, of Marietta, Ga., who works in financial services, says she’s noticing that it’s harder to remember the kinds of things she used to easily recall. “My business is very detail-oriented. Years ago, I would remember all that stuff. Now, I really feel like I can’t remember details like I did 15 years ago.”

Karwoski says she thought she had a “very, very good memory, but I see that as I’m getting older, it’s not so true.”

Some reduction in memory is typical in healthy, normal aging, says Mark McDaniel, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Most lapses involve remembering arbitrary information, such as a name that goes with a face or a PIN.

But there will be definite signals when memory really starts to go awry, he says.

“An older adult who has started to have trouble remembering the way home and the streets in the neighborhood where they have lived for a while has a potential sign they’ve got something pathological,” McDaniel says. “If you’re aging normally, you would not have difficulty remembering common environmental landmarks and how to get home.”

And that bugaboo of all time: Where are the keys?

“One reason they can’t remember where they put their keys is they’re not paying attention and are thinking about something else,” McDaniel says.

“When you put your keys down, stop and say out loud, ‘I’m putting my keys on my dresser.’ It makes you pay attention and allows encoding of that fact. The other thing is always put your keys in the same place, so it just becomes a habit to go to that place to look for your keys.”

Inattentiveness definitely leads to bad memory, says McDaniel, who will not be at the meeting but co-authored a presentation being made on Sunday.

“Fatigue and lack of sleep also puts us at risk to put our information into memory. Stress is a big one,” he says. “We think it’s because when you’re stressed, you’re preoccupied, and if you’re preoccupied, you’re not attentive to the situation at hand and to prospective memory tasks.”

Another reason for not being able to remember could have to do with social situations, suggests Rajaram. Her work is part of an emerging area of research that considers the social nature of memory and the effect of group interaction. Rajaram says the findings she will discuss at the meeting are counterintuitive: “People remember less when they remember together.”

Sleep on it

As an example, she cites what can happen when friends go to a rock concert and don’t sit together but are in the same place at the same time. “Even if people were to experience something together, when they later try to recall it together, they’re not always successful. … It’s as if they are blocking each other,” she says.

Memories that are stressful or emotional are more likely to be stored and remembered, says Christa McIntyre, assistant professor of cognition and neuroscience at the University of Texas-Dallas, who will present research.

“Multiplication tables you had to study, but something emotionally arousing will be remembered after a single experience,” she says. “You usually don’t remember every new environment you enter, but if you trip or embarrass yourself, you would remember that. That would make the difference.”

Brain-imaging research in the lab of Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., is focused on the role that memory plays in thinking and planning for the future, as well as trying to better understand why people err in remembering.

“Most memories have elements of accuracy and some of distortion,” he says.

Schacter, editor of a 1999 book about false memories and cognitive neuropsychology, says there also are a lot of similarities in brain activity during true and false memories.

“The therapeutic techniques that encourage people to imagine events that might have occurred when they were young can attribute to false memories. A lot of the same brain regions are active,” Schacter says. “It turned out for people who claim to recover (memories of) childhood sexual abuse in therapy, it was hard to corroborate the accuracy of evidence, as opposed to people who spontaneously recovered memories on their own. That turned out to be more reliable.”

Research published last year in the journal Learning and Memory suggests sleep may reduce mistakes in memory. A study to be presented at the conference supports the concept that sleep improves memory in infants. Rebecca Gomez, associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona-Tucson, finds that in infants, sleep is essential for early learning and retention.

“This shows babies aren’t like adults,” she says. “They need to sleep fairly soon after learning.”

Edwards-Cannon says sleep hasn’t really been a problem for her, but sometimes things she intends to do slip her mind, such as, “I meant to bring the clothes with me to replenish Mom’s closet, but I got preoccupied with something else and I forgot.”

Because there are few visual cues for prospective memory, McDaniel says, it’s easier to forget an intention, such as to take your lunch to work. If it’s hidden in the fridge, you’re more likely to forget it. But if it’s out on the counter, you’d have a visual cue.

“All of us are distractible, and we get on another line of thought and the original thought has left our awareness,” he says.

Rajaram adds that people vary in memory capacity; some are just more forgetful. “Forgetfulness is not just being poor at remembering; it also occurs because as we gain experience in life and get older, we have more to remember,” she says.

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