Staying Sharp For Dummies
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Searching for the right word in the middle of a conversation can be frustrating. With normal aging, you may take longer to retrieve the word you want to use when engaged in a conversation. However, you don't need to find yourself in a situation where you're searching for the right word. You can do several things to avoid this problem as you get older.

Banish the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon

Everyone struggles with the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (TOT for short) — when you can describe a word in detail but you just can't remember what it is.

Here's how TOT works. You're thinking of a fruit; you ate it for breakfast, it's juicy, and you can see it in your head, but you just can't remember what it's called. Two hours later, the name pops into your head while you're in the middle of a meeting — it was a kiwi. This example is simple; more commonly, you search for words you say less frequently.

Communicating something that you can see in your mind but can't remember the name of is frustrating. Sometimes it's even harder to describe what you want to say because another word is "stuck" in your mind. In the previous example, maybe all you could think of at the time was a strawberry rather than a kiwi!

You're searching for the word and you know that you know it, but you just can't find it when you want to say it. Why did you keep thinking of a strawberry, and why was it stopping you from thinking about a kiwi? Actually, thinking about a strawberry was your brain's way of helping you think of kiwi. Your brain tried to find related words, such as the names of other juicy fruits, to trigger the missing word.

Psychologists describe this situation as a temporary breakdown in your mental dictionary: You can think of the meaning of the word but not how to say it. You store information in different parts of your brain. You store images (a picture of a kiwi) in one part of your brain and the related meaning (the description of a kiwi, recipes using kiwis, and the taste of a kiwi) in another part of the brain. With TOT, it's as if the bridge connecting your images and understanding of the item and the word for that item is temporarily blocked.

It may be that you haven't used this particular connection very often and so it becomes rusty. The item you want to say may be one you infrequently use, so it may take longer to find and retrieve it in your memory banks. Some say it's like an overgrown bike path. Once it was smooth and clear, but because you haven't used it much, weeds and grass overgrow, and it becomes harder to bike on. The path is still there, but it takes longer to travel on.

People's names are also hard to remember because they're arbitrary. The name Tracy doesn't necessarily remind you of something specific, and so it's easy to forget the association between a name and a face if you don't attach a meaningful connection to the name, such as Tracy, my childhood friend.

Everyone experiences TOT. Although it may be annoying and frustrating, it's not something you should panic about. Read on for techniques to minimize the occurrence of TOT.

Use a variety of words

Don't get stuck in a rut, using the same words and same ideas every day. In order to avoid TOT, keep your word-image-meaning connections active. The more often you use language and seek out opportunities to use language creatively, the less likely you are to experience TOT.

Here are some suggestions that can help:

  • Play games with yourself. Set yourself a target — for example, name as many animals as you can in 30 seconds. Try to name one animal per second. Now make it harder — name as many animals as you can that start with the letter B in 30 seconds. Try a different topic — maybe fruit or furniture. Try it for 15 seconds if you find it too easy, or pick less common letters of the alphabet. The goal of this game is to challenge your mind to create connections between items in a category. Also try to think of words you may not use very often. You may even find yourself making a mental store of animal names when you read the newspaper!

    Doctors sometimes use these listing games when testing for dementia because patients with dementia lose the cognitive ability to make these lists. Often, they can only think of three or four animals in 30 seconds and sometimes repeat animal names they've already listed.

  • Do crosswords. Crosswords are a fun and fantastic way to keep those word-meaning connections alive. If you're not a big fan of crosswords, start with something easy on a topic you enjoy, such as gardening or travel. Crosswords are very effective in combating TOT because they give you a clue and you have to search for the word, which exercises your ability to retrieve information from your memory banks.
  • Give yourself clues. If you're a list-writer, here's a technique you can try. Instead of writing down what you need to do — for example, take out the chicken from the freezer, get rosemary from the garden, or buy carrots — why not write it out in clues?

    So here's what a list may look like: Take the bird out of the freezer; in the garden, get the herb that starts with the name of a flower; and buy a vegetable that's supposed to give you great eyesight. By doing so, you're giving yourself descriptions that force you to think of the word. (You may not want to do this if you're giving the list to someone else unless the other person has a sense of humor.)

  • Keep a diary. Writing in a diary is a proven way to keep your language skills intact. You can write just a little every day, but try to use words that you wouldn't usually use and be as descriptive as possible. Imagine yourself as the next Mark Twain and try to write about your day as if it's a detective story, romance, or whatever genre you prefer. The goal is to challenge your mind to think about your day and to use language in a creative way.
  • Finish your thoughts. And finally, always finish your thoughts. Sometimes it's easier to let someone guess what you want to say, so you start saying something but then trail off at the end. Try to avoid this tendency. Even if it takes you a little longer, finishing your thoughts is an important habit to establish. You need to be active in communicating your ideas if you want to keep the paths between images, descriptions, and words clear.

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The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) is a nationwide, not-for-profit society of geriatrics healthcare professionals dedicated to improving the health, independence, and quality of life of older people.

The Health in Aging Foundation is a national non-profit organization established in 1999 by AGS to bring the knowledge and expertise of geriatrics healthcare professionals to the public.

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