Can you recall the name of the device musicians use to help them keep time? What about the domed building where people can see projected constellations and other celestial bodies? If the words aren’t coming to you immediately, don’t worry: the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (TOT) is perfectly normal across all age groups. And while it may happen more as you age, a new study confirms that it doesn’t mean you’re losing your memory.
Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study tested participants’ ability to identify various famous people from photographs and recall TOT-trigger words from their given definition. The 718 subjects ranged in age from 18 to 99. In addition to semantic memory tests, the researchers also had participants recall episodic memories — specific moments and events in their lives — that, if difficult to recall, could represent a sign of dementia.
Based on the study’s two components, researchers couldn’t link TOT with the early warning signs of memory loss.
"Our major finding is that they seem to be independent," Timothy Salthouse, the study's lead author and professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, told Reuters Health.
While TOT on its own is harmless, the phenomenon can arise as a more serious condition where the affected person has trouble forming basic words and recalling names. Known as anomic aphasia, dysnomia, and nominal aphasia, the condition stems from a damaged parietal or temporal lobe in the brain. Stroke sufferers and brain trauma victims face a greater risk for anomic aphasia, but the condition can also be congenital.
As people age, the neural connections that allow information to glide from one neuron to the next begin to break down. This makes data recall more effortful and frustrating. Through a lifetime of experiences and learning, older people also tend to be more knowledgeable, which works double duty in that it makes TOT happen more frequently and even harder to overcome.
"Even though the tip-of-the-tongue experiences are more common as you get older and they're very frustrating … they don't seem to be a sign that you're having memory problems associated with impending dementia," Salthouse said.
However, he cautioned against reading too far into the study, as the experimenters only tested one type of memory as a marker for early signs of memory loss. The subjects were still relatively vibrant, he said, so any potential successes among the elderly members may be skewed. Overall, 20-year-olds had between two and three TOT moments compared to people in their 80s, who experienced eight or nine.
Still, these findings illustrate that TOT "may not be a sign that you're on the cusp of very dramatic memory decline,” Salthouse said.
(And if you were still working through the two questions posed earlier, the first is a metronome and the second is a planetarium. Stay sharp.)
Source: Salthouse T, Mandell A. Do Age-Related Increases in Tip-of-the-Tongue Experiences Signify Episodic Memory Impairments? Psychological Science. 2013.