Alan is nearing 80 years old and is going to have a specialized physician determine whether he has Alzheimer’s. First he wanted me to check his long- and short-term memory.
People who complain about memory often talk erroneously about it. “I can’t remember anything anymore,” they’ll say. This is easy to disprove, and that’s good news for them.
In the field of memory, we limit short-term to a matter of seconds, the time we spend juggling information in our mind before processing and storing it, thus making it long-term. Long-term memory doesn’t mean permanent. It’s just longer than short-term memory — perhaps hours, days or years longer.
If you have trouble with short-term memory, you most likely are suffering from profound distraction in the form of grief, vengeful thoughts, depression or worry. These conditions can consume brain space and make you think your brain’s going bad. Sleep deprivation or exhaustion can cause the same effect.
Alan was concerned about his short-term memory, but as we conversed, he was able to ask coherent questions, make observations and build upon what each of us said. That’s proof his short-term memory is still strong. He was relieved to know that.
His real concern was about what we can nontechnically call recent memory, things that are said and done during the past 24 hours or several days. This, too, was easy to settle. I simply asked Alan if he had read the paper today and whether he found anything of interest. He recounted an article in normal detail, proving he could easily remember recent events. This, too, relieved him.
But the trick here is to realize that most people older than 35 have an easy time believing they’re losing their memory. They think their brain is wearing out. They don’t make distinctions between remembering and recall.
Recalling something without help — free recall — is the most difficult memory function and is not nearly as useful as remembering things when we are prompted with sensible cues.
For instance, I can’t recall people’s names very well after I meet them, and I think it’s because I pay so much attention to their faces. I can remember an individual’s name; however, if you give me a set of three names, one of which belongs to the person. My memory is healthy — I can remember the name; I just can’t free-recall it.
Alan was free-recalling the newspaper content. So we established that his short- and long-term memory are good.
But not completely, and this is what is really important. A certain kind of deterioration became evident when I asked two simple questions. Alan struggled to tell me who was running in the presidential primaries, although he could describe the candidates. He got the last names right away, but the first names took unusually long. I told him that indicated a problem, since the names are everywhere. He agreed.
I then asked where he worked for 30 years. He was speechless. He could describe the work he used to do, but he could not come up with the employer’s name. He recognized that this too was abnormal.
So Alan has strong short-term memory. He’s processing information and making coherent conversation. On the other hand, he is losing access to long-term information that should be on the tip of his tongue. The dementia specialist will pinpoint a problem that goes beyond names.
Free-recall is not nearly as useful to daily life as the skill of finding information or the ability to remember in response to relevant cues. Alan’s case is different, and he is smart to go to the doctor. Dementia can be slowed and managed much better by early treatment.
Max T. Russell writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website, maxtrussell.com.