Tip-of-the-tongue moments not tied to memory decline

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Did you ever want to say something, but the word or name gets “stuck on the tip of your tongue?” Don’t worry. Those lapses may not be a sign of dementia - just age, suggests a new study.

Researchers found those tip-of-the-tongue experiences become more common as people age, but are not related to worsening memory overall.

“Our major finding is that they seem to be independent,” Timothy Salthouse, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health. Salthouse is the Brown-Forman Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Studies had found that tip-of-the-tongue experiences are more common among older people. Those people may wonder if the lapses are a sign of approaching dementia, Salthouse and Arielle Mandell write in Psychological Science.

They studied 718 adults between the ages of 18 and 99 who were enrolled in the Virginia Cognitive Aging Project.

Each participant was put through a number of tests to gauge memory. The researchers also tried to trigger tip-of-the-tongue experiences.

For example, participants were asked to name famous people in photographs. They were also asked questions such as, “What is the name of the building where one can view projected images of celestial bodies on the inner surface of a dome?”

Participants were then able to choose from multiple answers if they couldn’t name the person in the picture or the word described by the definition or description, but said they knew the answer. If they were right, it was marked as a tip-of-the-tongue experience.

Overall, the researchers found more lapses among older participants.

For example, 20-year-olds had about two tip-of-the-tongue experiences each during the test showing 25 pictures of politicians. That compared to about nine lapses among people in their 80s.

Also, 20-year-olds had about three tip-of-the-tongue experiences when they were given descriptions of 25 people. That compared to about eight lapses among people in their 80s.

The researchers adjusted the numbers to account for the fact that older people are more knowledgeable, and therefore have more opportunities to have tip-of-the-tongue experiences.

Then, they took into account how people scored on a test of episodic memory, which is memory of events in a person’s own life. It’s also the type of memory that’s often tested to check for dementia.

Declining episodic memory did not seem to explain the increase in tip-of-the-tongue experiences as people aged.

“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.

He cautioned, however, that the study can’t say these lapses aren’t concerning, because the researchers only looked at one type of memory. And their participants were still relatively vibrant.

But, based on these findings, he said, tip-of-the-tongue moments “may not be a sign that you’re on the cusp of very dramatic memory decline.”

SOURCE: Psychological Science, online October 8, 2013.