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Healthy forgetting: everyone's brain needs some free space

by Carol Bradley Bursack, Editor-in-Chief

Middle aged people sometimes watch their aging parents with some trepidation. Current news is so packed with stories about Alzheimer's disease that every memory slip a parent makes can strike fear into the hearts of their adult children. People need to step back and think about the difference between a diseased brain and normal, healthy forgetting. Even young people's brains need to select what to remember. So don't panic. Your elders may be just fine.

If our brains retained every detail of our lives we would all be crazy. Literally crazy. We would have to focus on each step we take, on how we put the tooth paste on the brush, on every key on our chain and how we insert it into a door. We are designed to learn things and then put the learned message into storage where it goes on a kind of auto-pilot.

A similar process occurs when our brains decide what is worth remembering and what is not. How many times have you been introduced to someone, only to forget their name a few minutes later? Is that because you are "losing it?" No. It's because you aren't focusing on the here and now. Experts on memory tell us to use the person's name several times in conversation so we imprint it on our memories. If people make a living giving advice like that, obviously this is a common situation and not a part of aging or a brain malfunction. It's life.

People who have stuffed many decades of living into their brains will often say jokingly, after a memory slip, that their hard drive is full. This analogy is a good one. Computers can slow down and get clogged up by bits and pieces of no longer used programs, plus downloaded junk and even viruses. When good cleanup programs are run on a slow, clogged computer, there will generally be a noticeable difference in speed and ease of use.

The human brain is somewhat similar, though better designed for "natural cleaning." It filters the busy world we are engaged in and saves to memory what seems to be important to our unique life. Of course, our lives change with time, and we may wish our brains would have known that before, as we may have to go back and re-learn something that at one time seemed inconsequential. But the system is pretty good.

Fortunately or unfortunately, as we age, our brains must work harder to recall information simply because there is so much information accumulated over time. If our brain has been really efficient about "healthy forgetting," and spared us the memories of trivial things that we have no need to remember, there will be more room for important memories. However, our brains often accumulate remembered "junk," along with decades of important information. Thus, as we age, recall can slow down.

Slower recall doesn't mean memory failure

It simply takes longer to dig through all of that information until we find what we are looking for. That explains many an elder's frustration with recalling someone's name an hour after the information was needed. It took that long for the brain to dig down far enough to find the information.

This is frustrating, but normal. It's not even a memory "problem." It's a sign of long life and many memories. So, kids, you can stop worry about Dad and that slowed recall.

Forgetting what the function of a key is - that's a problem

Now, if he starts forgetting what a house key or the telephone is used for, or you find his pillow in the oven, get him to a doctor. That is a sign of Alzheimer's disease. If his reasoning powers get flawed or he starts making poor financial decisions, that could be a sign of trouble. But slowed recall? Relax. This generally just signifies a life lived long and well.