"Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me ..."

Are those tip-of-tongue lapses a sign of serious memory loss?

We've all experienced it: You try to remember a word, a phone number, or—most commonly—someone’s name, and you just can’t quite bring it to mind. You feel like you are so close to finding the word in your head! Perhaps you have a vague sense of the first letter, or a picture in your mind of the item or person you're trying to remember. You snap your fingers a few times and say, "Oh you know, a whatchamacallit." And often as not, if you merely stop thinking about it for a few seconds, the word pops right into your mind.

These temporary lapses increase when we are distracted, under stress or pressured to come up with a word. For example, game show producers tell us that some contestants with an encyclopedic knowledge nonetheless fail to produce answers quickly when faced with lights, cameras and an audience.

These memory lapses are caused by a temporary delay or block in the complex system by which our brains retrieve memories. They are called "tip-of-tongue" errors, because when we experience them, it isn't that we don’t know the answer; instead, we have a sense that we will be able to retrieve the word at any second—that it is "on the tip of our tongue."

When we are younger, tip-of-tongue memory lapses usually don't worry us. But as we grow older, we seem to experience more of them—which makes us both notice them and worry about them more. We wonder if these glitches could be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease or other memory disorder.

The Association for Psychological Science recently reported on a study by researchers who investigated whether seniors in fact do experience increased tip-of-tongue errors—and whether these "cognitive stumbles” were connected to serious memory loss. Said University of Virginia psychological scientist Timothy Salthouse, "We wondered whether these self-reports are valid, and if they are, do they truly indicate age-related failures of the type of memory used in the diagnosis of dementia?"

To find out, the researchers performed an experiment with more than 700 participants ranging in age from 18 to 99. They set up a test situation designed to elicit tip-of-tongue moments by showing participants photos of famous people, or by asking quiz-type questions such as "What is the name of the building where one can view images of celestial bodies on the inner surface of a dome?" Test subjects were instructed to report whether they (a) knew the answer (b) didn't know the answer, or (c) knew the answer but couldn't come up with it—the tip-of-tongue experience.

The study confirmed that overall, older participants reported more of these frustrating moments than their younger counterparts. However, the researchers found no connection between the tip-of-tongue moments and the subjects' performance on memory tests of the type used to detect dementia.

The researchers say this study indicates that these annoying memory glitches should not on their own be considered a sign of early Alzheimer's disease or other dementia. Salthouse and his colleagues reported, "Even though increased age is associated with ... more frequent tip-of-the-tongue experiences, the two phenomena seem to be largely independent of one another."

The study appeared in the journal Psychological Science.      

This article is not meant to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Consult with your doctor if you have questions about memory changes.

Learn More

When we notice changes in our memory, which symptoms should concern us? Which signs are normal and not to be worried about? The Alzheimer's Association offers the article "10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's," which compares worrisome symptoms to typical, age-related changes.

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