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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Jeret

Forgetfulness: A Comprehensive Guide on Memory and When to Worry


Speech therapy for memory in Wilmette.  Remote speech therapy for memory.

Memory is something we all rely on every day; however, some of us worry more about forgetting things than others. Dementia is an umbrella term for a number of neurological conditions, with a major symptom being a global decline in brain function. If Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia run in your family, you might be especially concerned about losing your memory. Older individuals may also worry about memory loss.

If you are younger, you are often unconcerned about memory problems you may have knowing it is not a sign of Alzheimer's.


In this blog post, we’ll discuss how our brains make long-term memories, the different kinds of memories we have, which parts of the brain handle memories, strategies for remembering important information, when to be worried about forgetfulness, and how a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) can help you in your journey. Whether you are concerned about forgetfulness, curious about strategies to strengthen your memory, or just interested in how memory works, this blog post will provide you with some helpful information.



How we Form Long Term Memories


Speech therapy for memory in Skokie, Illinois.  Remote speech therapy for memory.

Encoding. When you experience something (a car crash, a wedding, an encounter with a friend, Thursday breakfast), your brain captures what you hear, see, smell, taste, and what you specifically paid attention to. This experience is then translated into neurological language.


Remember, this pertains to what you specifically paid attention to. Someone who experienced the same thing may not have paid attention to what they smelled as much as you did, and therefore, their experience was different from yours. Their memory will therefore be different from yours.


Consolidation. Your brain takes all of this information and connects it together (the smell, taste, visual experience, and more are connected together) forming one big pattern. This helps the information stick in your memory.


Storage. This information makes lasting changes in the neurons, like changing their structure and chemicals.


Retrieval. When you try to recall something, your brain searches through the stored memories to find the one it is looking for. Sometimes this can be relatively easy while other times, it can be more challenging. The ease of retrieval depends on many factors including how clear the memory was.


Some of the Brain Regions Involved in Memory Formation and Recall


Speech therapy for memory in Wilmette, Illinois.

Some parts of the brain play important roles in the formation of memory including:


Temporal Lobe: Found on the sides of the brain, the temporal lobe is associated with processing what we hear and plays a role in visual recognition. Can you recall what your friend's voice sounds like? You are using your temporal lobe.


  • Hippocampus. This region is located in the brain’s temporal lobes, one on each side of the brain. It assists in converting short-term memories (like what you had for breakfast an hour ago) into long-term memories. These memories are eventually stored in the parts of the brain that originally registered the initial experience.


For example, if you had bacon and eggs for breakfast, you may have paid attention to the taste of the meal and what it looked like. This information can be converted into a long-term memory by the hippocampus. Eventually, these memories are stored in the parts of the brain that registered the experience, namely the part of the brain that deal with taste and the part of the brain that deals with vision.


  • Amygdala.  This region sits next to the hippocampus in the temporal lobe.  It plays an important role in encoding and recalling memories with strong emotional associations (for example, a wedding or your first kiss).


Frontal Lobe: Located at the front of the brain, the frontal lobe is involved in higher cognitive functions such as reasoning, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making.


  • Prefrontal Cortex. This area is situated at the front of the brain, behind the forehead. It is involved in working memory, which is the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information needed for different tasks. For example, holding onto the digits of a phone number in order to dial that number in the immediate future.


Parietal Lobe: Just behind the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe processes sensory information such as touch, temperature, and pain.


Occipital Lobe: Located at the back of the brain, the occipital lobe is responsible for processing visual information received from the eyes. Visualize the breakfast you had this morning. You are using your occipital lobe.


If I asked you to imagine your aunt, your brain uses different parts to help you see her in your mind. The occipital lobe helps you picture her, while the temporal lobe helps you remember how she sounds. If you also remember her perfume, that's another part of your brain at work. So, a bunch of different parts of your brain work together to help you imagine things like this.


Basal Ganglia: These structures are located deep within the brain and are involved in procedural memory, which is the memory of how to do things (for example, riding a bike or playing the piano).


Various types of Memory


Remote speech therapy for memory in Naperville Illinois.

There are several types of memory that I want to discuss in particular.


Semantic Memory or memory of information includes the facts you know about the world that are not attached to a specific "when" or "where." 


CO2 is carbon dioxide, 1+1 =2, and vitamin A is important for vision.  These are all facts I know; however, I cannot recall where I learned it, who taught it to me, or when I learned it.  


Episodic Memory or memory for what happened includes memories of specific events, including the context in which they occurred. These memories may encompass when the event occurred, its duration, the sequence of events, and may contain sensory details such as sights, sounds, tastes, and emotions.


Muscle Memory or memory for how to do things includes memories for performing habits, procedures, and other skills.


Your memory for how to ride a motorcycle, type on a computer, or swim is all part of muscle memory. You committed the steps necessary to perform these skills to memory through a lot of repetition. Repetition makes muscle memory stronger. The parts of the brain involved in muscle memory include the basal ganglia and cerebellum.


Unlike other memories, muscle memories are retrieved without conscious effort. Think about it simply as you read this blog post. Are you currently retrieving information on how to read (from left to right, scrolling down as you continue reading)? Probably not, because you have been reading repetitively throughout your life, and you no longer need to retrieve this information.


Prospective memory is like your to-do list for the day.


It includes tasks such as going to the grocery store to buy milk or reminding Aunt Susan to return your toaster. These are all examples of prospective memory in action.


For prospective memory to be remembered it must be encoded into memory (I need to remember to get milk at the grocery store) and you must remember to remember to get milk from the grocery store. Often the most difficult part is to remember to remember.  


I know the word, it's on the tip of my tongue...

Tip of the Tongue, or TOT, refers to a word you know you know but cannot recall at the moment. It is as if the word is literally on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite find it. You may recall the number of syllables or the first letter of that word, but your brain cannot seem to find it.


TOTs are normal and often increase with age. The reason many individuals in their 20s do not worry about TOTs is that they are not concerned about having Alzheimer's; however, the older one gets, especially with a family history of Alzheimer’s, the worse this fear gets.


TOTs are not a sign of Alzheimer's. Some people fear that asking a friend or using Google to retrieve this word is a crutch and they should wrack their brain for the answer. This is simply not true, and there is no need for this. Feel free to use ask a friend or use Google. It will not make you have Alzheimer's.


When Forgetfulness is a Problem


Remote speech therapy for memory in dementia Alzheimer's patient in Evanston Illinois.

Let’s start off by saying that not all forgetting is bad.  I go to the grocery store twice a week and the parking lot is large so I park in different spots all the time.  If I remembered all the different places I parked in the past 4 weeks, I would probably not have been able to find my car today.  In this case, my ability to forget is actually a good thing.  


As we age, our hair grays, wrinkles start popping up on our face, and our ability to physically do the things we used to do begins to slow. This is all a normal part of aging. There is normal degradation of memory secondary to aging and abnormal degradation of memory.

  1. Aging does not degrade muscle memory. Our ability to perform habits and other skills (like bike riding) should be remembered; however, our ability to perform these tasks may be reduced secondary to our aging bodies.

  2. Tip of the Tongue (TOTs) increase, and the ability to retrieve the word becomes more challenging. Despite this, the word is still in our minds and has not evaporated from our brain.

  3. Working memory, or the ability to temporarily hold onto information we need in the moment (like a phone number we are about to dial), disappears quicker.

  4. Sustained attention, or maintaining our focus for a sustained amount of time, decreases as we age.


Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that is not caused by normal aging. While there is still some debate about the cause of Alzheimer’s, most neuroscientists agree it begins with a protein called amyloid beta. This protein begins forming plaques in the synapses of our brain. It begins in the hippocampus, but frequently spread to other areas in the brain. As it progresses to the parietal lobe, individuals may experience disorientation in familiar surroundings. Once the prefrontal and frontal cortex are impacted, impaired logical thinking, planning, and problem solving skills ensues. While misplacing keys is common, discovering them in unusual places such as the freezer, signals a more significant issue.  Furthermore, it can affect muscle memory, causing individuals to forget routine tasks like writing a check or driving to the store.


In the earliest stages of the disease, the signs of dementia are not apparent as they appear to be typical of normal aging. However, as it progresses, the signs are clear and disparate from memory changes secondary to aging.

  • One of the initial indicators of dementia is the inability to recall recent events, particularly if the circumstances were non-routine, and the individual was attentive and unstressed during the event.

  • Another sign is rapid forgetfulness, making it increasingly challenging to form new memories.

  • Additionally, individuals may struggle to retrieve specific words that seem to have vanished from memory, a phenomenon distinct from normal forgetfulness where cues like the first letter or word length can help with recall.

  • Lastly, complex objects or concepts may be described using simpler terms, such as substituting "bag" for "backpack" or "suitcase."


Tips for Maintaining Cognitive Health and Improving Memory


Tips for improving memory for those with Alzheimers and other memory challenges

So the question that looms over many of us is what we can do to stave off dementia and/or how can we stop forgetting things we want to remember...


Pay Attention and Avoid Multi-Tasking.


When we are attentive, we are more likely to remember things. For instance, if you hurriedly park your car because you are late to work and fail to pay attention to where you parked, upon leaving work, you may "forget" where your car is. This "forgetfulness" is not forgetfulness at all but simply a lack of attentiveness.


iPhones, email, and texting are all notorious for grabbing your attention. In today's world, many people participate in meetings while answering emails and texting on their phone. Multitasking may save you time, but it does not assist in memory building, and it is likely you will not remember most of the information from the meeting.


Write Things Down.


As we age, some degree of forgetfulness is normal. Documenting important events in a journal, creating to-do lists, keeping a calendar, and using a pillboxes assist in remembering important things.


Repetition, Recollection, Testing Yourself.


If you meet Kate for the first time and she introduces herself and shakes your hand, saying "it's nice to meet you, Kate," is double repetition and will help you form a memory. In addition, if you test yourself several minutes later on her name and guess correctly, you have strengthened the signal for retrieving her name and thus strengthened that memory.


In fact, this is why flashcards often work much better when studying for an exam. You are not only repeating something, but if you flip the card, you are attempting to retrieve it. This strengthens the memory.


Spacing Things Out.


Cramming before an exam is not the best for our memory. If you space out studying as opposed to cramming, you are giving your hippocampus more time to consolidate the information into long-term memory.


Eat Healthy.


Consuming cookies all day will accelerate the aging of your memory (and may shave years from your life), while adopting a healthy diet will improve memory in the short term. However, aging will still occur along with normal forgetfulness. Several studies have concluded that the DASH and MIND diets reduce the risk of dementia by ⅓ to ½.


Effectively Manage Health Conditions.


Research has shown that effectively managing conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol can reduce the risk of cognitive decline.


Engage in Stress-Reducing Activities.


Chronic stress is detrimental to our body and brain; it inhibits our prefrontal cortex and therefore affects our brains. Research has shown that chronic stress can shrink the hippocampus, the memory part of the brain. Engaging in stress-reducing activities such as meditation can decrease the risk of chronic stress and thus reduce the changes to the hippocampus.


Get Enough Sleep.


Adequate sleep can reduce the risk of dementia. Numerous studies suggest that dementia is caused by amyloid plaques in the brain. During deep sleep, glial cells clear away these plaques; however, insufficient sleep prevents complete clearance. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to an accumulation of amyloid plaques, increasing the chances of dementia. Proper sleep hygiene improves memory.


Ensure You Are Getting Adequate Vitamin D.


Several studies have concluded that people with low vitamin D levels are twice as likely to develop dementia. Therefore, taking vitamin D supplements if you have insufficient levels can decrease your risk of developing dementia.


The Role of Speech-Language Pathologists as it Applies to Memory


Speech therapists (SLPs) play a valuable role in assisting individuals with memory challenges.

  • Assessment. SLPs can assess the individual's memory abilities and determine specific areas of difficulty

  • Cognitive Rehabilitation. SLPs can develop customized programs tailored to the individual's needs which may include exercises to improve memory, attention, and problem-solving skills.

  • Compensatory Strategies. SLPs can assist individuals in developing compensatory strategies to manage everyday tasks.

  • Collaboration. SLPs often work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals and families. This approach ensures that the individual's needs are addressed.

Speech therapists (SLPs) play a valuable role in assisting individuals with memory challenges who have Alzheimer's disease.

  • Assessment. SLPs evaluate the individual's cognition and identify areas of strength and weakness.

  • Communication Support. Alzheimer's can impact various aspects of communication including language comprehension and expression. SLPs can improve their communication skills with strategies such as visual aids and communication boards.

  • Memory Enhancement. SLPs can help those with Alzheimers develop memory strategies to improve recall.

  • Caregiver Support. SLPs can provide education and support to caregivers of individuals with Alzheimer's disease, offering guidance on communication and memory strategies.

  • Collaboration. SLP's often collaborate with other professionals such as neurologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals to ensure comprehensive care.


I provide speech therapy services for those with cognition/memory challenges in-person in Skokie, Evanston, Wilmette, Niles, and surrounding Illinois areas. I provide teletherapy for those who stutter throughout Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. I would love to help you or your loved one on a journey towards improved memory/cognition.

Frequently Asked Questions

Speech therapy for memory challenges in client in Wilmette Illinois

Is forgetfulness a normal part of aging?

Just like the body ages, so does the mind. Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging.


What lifestyle factors affect memory and cognitive function?

Diet, sleep, vitamin D levels, and managing health conditions can all impact memory and cognitive function.


Can stress and anxiety contribute to forgetfulness?

Yes, stress and anxiety can contribute to forgetfulness. Research has shown that chronic stress can shrink memory part of the brain. Engaging in stress-relieving activities can improve memory.


What role does sleep play in memory and forgetfulness?

Numerous studies suggest that dementia is caused by amyloid plaques in the brain. During deep sleep, glial cells clear away these plaques; however, getting less than sufficient sleep prevents complete clearance. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to an accumulation of these plaques, increasing the chances of dementia.


How can I improve my memory and prevent forgetfulness?

Being more attentive and avoiding multitasking, getting enough sleep, writing things down, testing yourself on important information, and engaging in stress-reducing activities can all improve memory.


 

About the author:  


Stephanie Jeret is a Speech-Language Pathologist and the owner of Speak with Stephanie LLC. She obtained her Bachelor's and Master's degree from the City University of New York. She has practiced speech therapy in a number of settings including outpatient rehabilitation, telepractice, skilled nursing facilities, schools, and a private practice. She specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a variety of communication disorders including articulation disorders, receptive/expressive language disorders, and fluency disorders. Information is available by emailing her at stephanie@speakwithstephanie.com or by visiting www.speakwithstephanie.com.




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