Forty years ago (we still can't believe it can be that long), Steve designed a Memory Training study at the Andrus Older Adult Center, as a treatment for depression. And Judy was a research assistant who taught the memory training classes to normal (as in non-demented) older adults. One of the exercises was what is called Tip of the Tongue. We came up with questions that could be answered by the name of a movie star or public figure from the 30s, 40s and 50s, since those would be most familiar to the participants in the study. Questions like "Who was the star of High Noon" (answer: Gary Cooper). If they couldn't guess it but felt like they knew the answer, we'd ask them to guess what the name started with, how many syllables, etc.
Judy's son Michael, who was 8 years old at the time, wanted to know what she did all day. When she described the Memory Training classes, he thought about it for a bit, then said, "Well, I can see why older people would have more trouble remembering things than I do. They have so many more memories in their brains that they have to look through for the answer." From the mouths of babes.
Let’s admit it. Tip of the tongue experiences, where we have the feeling we know a word or a name, but can’t recall it, are common and certainly seem more common than when we were younger. A recent article by psychologist Katrien Segaert of the University of Birmingham in the UK and summarized in the NY Times suggested older people who had greater aerobic fitness had fewer tip of the tongue responses on a vocabulary test, though more than the 20-somethings who were the controls.
The researchers ascribed the problems older people had in identifying words as difficulty connecting phonology, that is, the sound of the word, to its meaning. And fitness is important for good cognitive functioning, so maybe it helps with that connection. But what stood out to us was an observation the researchers made that suggested an alternate explanation. Older adults in the study had larger vocabularies than did the 20-year old controls. When you have a larger vocabulary, you have more words to search through to come up with the one you want. This may especially apply to words that you don’t use often.
The same thing is true about names. How many names have you stored in memory over the years. There are the people you know personally, as well as historical and public figures, movie and tv stars, authors, musicians, baseball players and so on. Some names will pop up quickly, and others take more time. You may be thinking of a name and a day or two later it will come to you. Studies done in the 1970s found that older people had more trouble retrieving names of political or entertainment figures, but had a larger pool of names they knew. So again, part of the problem may be the size of the search. More recent work suggests both aging and the size of the individual’s information pool play a role (Salthouse & Mandell, 2013). This work also found that tip of the tongue experiences are only minimally related related to decline in episodic memory, which is the most common type of loss in old age (Salthouse and Mandell, 2013).
If you get stuck trying to remember a word or a name, you can use the strategies we taught in our Memory Training study. See what information you can recall about the word or name. You can ask yourself, what is the first letter, what does the word or name sound like, how many syllables does it have, which syllable is accented. Use this strategy and you will usually be able to remember the word or name.
Or you could just google it.
You might also consider what we learned from the Memory Training study. Older people were able to learn the strategies we taught, but said they were not likely to use them. They told us the most valuable thing they learned was that with effort they could remember perfectly well. Getting that reassurance was sufficient.
Salthouse, T. A., & Mandell, A. R. (2013). Do age-related increases in Tip-of-the-Tongue experience signify episodic memory impairments. Psychological Sciences, 24, 2489-2497.
Link to the paper by Segaert and colleagues: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-24972-1.pdf?origin=ppub
Link to the New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/15/magazine/exercise-language-muscle-memory-word-recall-aging-fitness.html