Is Your Brain’s Hard Drive Full?

“Wait, wait, don’t tell me … I’ve known that guy for years, I just can’t remember his name!”

Older adults often joke that it takes them longer to remember things because they must sort through a lifetime of information to find the right answer. They might say something like, “My brain is too full!”

Recent research shows that this idea isn’t just a joke! A study published in Topics in Cognitive Science described the work of linguistics researchers who are using computers to demonstrate that, indeed, the “full brain” of seniors is the most common cause of slower memory and slower performance on certain memory-related tests.

The study team, headed by Dr. Michael Ramscar of the University of Tübingen in Germany, put computers to the test by loading them with information to simulate the increased knowledge of human seniors. Would computers experience a “senior moment”? According to the researchers, when the computer sorted through a small amount of information, its performance on cognitive tests resembled that of younger humans. But, say the researchers, “When the same computer was exposed to the experiences we might encounter over a lifetime, its performance looked like that of an older adult. Often it was slower, not because processing capacity had declined. Rather, increased ‘experience’ had caused the computer’s database to grow, giving it more data to process—which takes time.”

The researchers say that standard memory tests may not yield an accurate picture of an older adult’s memory health. They explain that older brains not only have more memories to sift through, but also more chances to forget things.

As an example, the team examined a classic memory lapse many older adults worry about: forgetting names. Seniors, take heart—the researchers remind us that the more people we meet in life or read about, the more names we need to sort through and remember. They also report that in the more cosmopolitan society of today, we encounter a greater diversity of names. The researchers said, “The number of names anyone learns over their lifetime has increased dramatically. This work shows how this makes locating a name in memory far harder than it used to be. Even for computers.”

Of course, not all memory loss is normal. The National Institute on Aging says that the following memory symptoms should be reported to a person’s healthcare provider:

  • Asking the same question over and over.
  • Becoming lost in places that are familiar.
  • Not being able to follow directions.
  • Becoming more confused about time, people and places.
  • Neglecting personal safety, hygiene and nutrition.

These symptoms might indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory loss. Or they could result from a treatable cause, such as medication side effects, infections, nutritional deficiencies, depression or alcohol abuse. No matter what the cause, early diagnosis is important.

Meanwhile, seniors who are experiencing normal age-related changes of memory should take these words of Dr. Ramscar to heart: “The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they simply know more.” Given that age-related stereotypes have been shown to trigger depression and inactivity, this understanding is great ammunition for combating all those ageist clichés about forgetful old people.

Alden Short-Term Rehabilitation and Health Care Centers offer care, activities, nutrition and overall health management to promote the brain health of every patient and resident.

Source: IlluminAge reporting on study from Tubingen University.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing troublesome memory symptoms.