Why isn’t the answer always on the tip of the tongue?

Do you often find that a word is on the tip of your tongue but are unable to vocalise it? If so, you’re not alone.

New University of Michigan research indicates that “tip-of-the-tongue” errors happen often to adults aged 65-92 years. In a study of 105 healthy, highly-educated older adults, 61 percent reported this memory mishap.

The participants completed a checklist of the memory errors made in the last 24 hours, as well as several other tests. About half of them reported making other errors that may be related to absent-mindedness, such as having to re-read a sentence because they forgot what it said, or forgetting where they placed an item.

The findings may help brain-training programmes target the memory problems people experience in daily life, the journal Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition reported.

“Right now, many training programmes focus on the age differences in memory and thinking that we see in laboratory studies,” said senior co-author and Michigan psychology professor Cindy Lustig.

“However, those may not translate to the performance failures that are most common in everyday life,” added Lustig, according to a university statement.

When people are tested in the lab and have nothing to rely on but their own memories, young adults typically do better than older adults, she said.

However, when these studies are conducted in real-world settings, older adults sometimes outperform young adults at things like remembering appointments because the former are likely to use memory supports such as calendars, lists and alarms.

“When we looked at how people performed on standard laboratory tests, we found the usual age differences,” she said. “People in their 80s and 90s performed worse than those in their 60s and early 70s,” said Lustig.

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Lustig cautioned that an elderly person occasionally forgetting a name does not mean he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.

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