Multi-Tasking Linked to Forgetfulness

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

With the growing awareness of Alzheimer's disease, it is understandable that many people are concerned about perceived declines in their ability to store and retrieve information.

The most beneficial message from a public health point of view must strike a careful balance. While it is not helpful to worry needlessly about every failure of recall, it is potentially disastrous to ignore obvious warning signs of advancing illness.

An article published yesterday in the USA Today makes a point that we emphasize often in this blog. Namely, not all forgetfulness is the same and much of it is not necessarily worrisome. Knowing the difference between benign memory lapses and potentially serious memory lapses is important.

Types of Memory
Scientists classify memory into three categories as described below:
  • Working Memory - this is often called "attention span" and it refers to the information you can hold in your consciousness without storing for later retrieval. For example, a phone number that you hear on the radio and dial one time before forgetting. This function is located in the frontal lobe of the brain.
  • Short-Term Memory - these are the things you will remember for a few minutes and up to a couple of weeks. Examples are the room number of your hotel on vacation or the character's names in the book you just finished. This function is located in a brain area called the hippocampus.
  • Long Term Memory - these are things you might recall forever such as your date of birth, your favorite teacher from grade school, or the name of your first pet. Storage of long-term memory is not well understood in terms of which parts of the brain are involved.
In terms of understanding one's own memory and possible signs of Alzheimer's disease, short-term memory is very important. This is because the pathology we associate with Alzheimer's disease generally begins in the hippocampus where short-term memory is processed. Therefore, lapses in short-term memory are the most worrisome.

On the other hand, it is very normal to notice a reduced capacity for working memory which declines linearly, although not drastically, with age. As noted in the USA Today article, stress, distraction, and multi-tasking all interfere with working memory and, coupled with the aging process, lead to all sorts of benign lapses such as lost keys and truncated trains of thought.

It is great to monitor your memory and to be vigilant about troubling signs of memory loss but it is also good to be aware of how your memory works and why you sometimes seem more forgetful than you really are.
A better understanding and more awareness of Alzheimer's related issues can impact personal health decisions and generate significant impact across a population of aging individuals. Please use the share buttons below to spread this educational message as widely as possible.

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