Forgetting to remember


By Neil Offen  

It’s true of all of us, that we occasionally can’t remember stuff: where we put the house keys, if we left the water running in the bathtub or the Pythagorean theorem. The ages of our children. Maybe our spouse’s name. In fact, studies show that about a third of healthy older adults have trouble knowing where I last put my glasses.

It is, of course, a normal part of aging, a function of the brain, having been operating on high for a number of decades, now overloaded with useless information like who was Michael Dukakis’s running mate in 1988 (Lloyd Bentsen) and the last line of the movie “Some Like It Hot” (“Nobody’s perfect,” of course.).

According to the most recent research, when we reach the age of 40 or so, every minute of the day we start losing 17,211 brain cells, and even more if we’re watching a Republican presidential debate. And the remaining cells start to have to work extra hard and so really get winded, forcing the cerebellum to just want to lay down on the couch and rest. Plus, with so many brain cells gone, it’s naturally tough to remember where you put the car keys, even if you put them in the ignition.

And yet, while we occasionally forget the word for that large African animal with tusks and a trunk, we do remember odd bits of fluff. For instance, I can immediately sing along to all the words from Little Richard’s “You Keep A-Knocking, But You Can’t Come In” (admittedly, the song only has about 11 words, and they are repeated multiple times. But still.) and I can recall, with little effort, the lineup of the 1960 New York Yankees*.

*Tony Kubek, Gil McDougald, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson. 

But I managed to leave the house the other day without remembering to take my wallet. And it was not an isolated incident. On other occasions, I have forgotten my sunglasses while I was wearing them and didn’t know where my cellphone was when I was talking on my cell phone to the store where I thought I had left my sunglasses. I’ve walked into the kitchen to do something and then had no idea why I had walked into the kitchen, so walked into the living room and didn’t understand why the refrigerator wasn’t there.

Like all of us, I sometimes don’t remember where I’ve put my slippers, my toothbrush, the mail I was carrying in from the mailbox, the book I was just reading or the cookie I was just sneaking. I’ve lost track of the joke I was telling, the conversation I was having and the lasagna I was baking.

I’ve also sometimes started sentences and forgotten midway through how they were supposed to …


Many of us who have been around for some time joke about these kind of memory lapses and call them “senior moments,” mainly because we would rather not call them dementia. As we age and forget little things, and then more little things, we all start to develop a fear of dementia, which has polled badly and has a generally pejorative connotation. Every time we forget an inconsequential little thing—like, where are my keys? Or what’s the name of that actor in that show that we saw last night? Or where do I live and who am I married to?—we understandably view it as a possible sign of incipient dementia.

My friend Marsha had exactly this fear a while ago. She had been forgetting things, like her glasses and where she parked her car, so she went to her doctor to ask for some tests to see if she might have early-onset Alzheimer’s. The doctor reassured her that she was too old for early-onset anything.

Unfortunately, Marsha has no memory of the doctor appointment and still can’t find her car. Fortunately, I have a garage. 

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