Healthy Forgetting Vs. Early Memory Problems: There Is a Difference

  • Forgetting is great. We need to do more of it. That's the essence of a story titled, "You Must Remember This: Forgetting Has Its Benefits," that recently ran on It's a great read and very heartening to those of us who study and read about memory problems to the point that we can hardly have a conversation with a colleague without wondering, on the sly, if he or she is slipping just a bit - especially if that colleague is over the half-century point in life.


    What at one time would have just seemed normal brain-lock, because someone is very busy, now is suspect. We are inundated with untold numbers of studies, books and articles on Alzheimer's disease and other dementias that involve memory loss. It's hard to watch the news or check the Web without seeing a reference.

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    Every one of these studies deserves at least a passing glance, as who knows when some vital piece of information will be found that will help solve the puzzle of Alzheimer's? Every one of these books and articles deserves at least some consideration. Who knows when one piece of information will be found that will lead to a drug that will reverse the disease or give those living with the disease a better quality life? So, we watch studies and read books and have discussions. This is important business.


    However, when I catch myself second guessing why I had a brain-lock moment at one of my jobs, I start wondering. Is this the beginning of something I need to have evaluated? When my colleague repeats himself several times, do I need to be wondering if something negative is happening in his brain?


    The Wall Street Journal story reminds us that our brain is made to forget, and that, my friends, is something many of us need to remember. If we remembered every detail of every day of our lives, we'd likely be incoherent, if not ready to jump off a cliff. 


    This story mentions a person with two 4 ½ year-old children. Where did the time go? I sometimes find myself, a woman with two grown sons, a bit wistful that I don't remember every little detail of their tiny baby moments. I was (am) a devoted, doting, mother. How much could I have missed?


    However, the reality is that if I could remembered all of those details of the three decades of my life as a mother, I may not have had room in my brain to learn a ton of new technology that my new job, which I started at age 56, demanded. I also need to have room in my brain to remember to do my yoga stretches and take my vitamins after an 11-hour day sitting in front of a computer screen. I need room in my brain to enjoy life at this moment, and refresh myself.


    I also need to have room in my brain to create. Yet, think of it. If we remembered everything thing we created - every word written, every dish cooked,  every room painted, every child taught - we would simply have no way of making sense of it all.


    So, yes, we must remember that we are supposed to forget some things. We aren't supposed to register and store into long-term memory every detail of every day.


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    However, there are times to be concerned. If I lock my keys in the car, I will be upset with my preoccupied mind and then figure out how to retrieve them. If I put them in the refrigerator, I may need to wonder why. Did I do it because I had my hands full and they were snagged on the grocery bag (yeah, I admit I did that a couple of decades ago)? Or did I put them in there because I that seemed, at the moment, like the place to put them?


    It's all about the whys. All of us will forget. All of us will have longer retrieval times when asked to sort through years of memories to pull out the name of an old friend.


    But when we find we can't make sense of our world - when we get lost in our own neighborhood, and can't explain it away because of distraction -then it's time to get checked. Early diagnosis is still our best chance at staving off the worst effects of Alzheimer's for as long as possible. So we need to be aware that there is a difference between just being scattered because we are busy, and being confused about daily issues (and perhaps covering up so people aren't sure what is going on).


    We do need to remain vigilant about our memories; about protecting them and evaluating them. But we also need to remember that it's not only human to forget, it's healthy. A healthy brain is more about what we remember and forget than how much.


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Published On: November 25, 2008