Experts: Memory Loss Often a Focus Problem

— How long will it take you to forget everything you read in this article?

That may depend on how much other information you're bombarded with today. And if you're like a lot of Americans it's probably an overwhelming amount.

There's e-mail, for example. The average worker sends and receives hundreds of messages every day. And there are passwords — multiple computer log-ins and bank pin numbers. Then there are mental grocery lists, the day's tasks and the name of your friend's spouse to remember.

One problem with inundating the brain with lots of information is you're likely to forget some of the information. But experts point out the issue may not be with our memories.

The brain's ability to store knowledge is still considered to be vast, although how vast remains unclear. One French study estimated if we were fed 10 items of data every second for 100 years, it would only take up one-tenth of our brain's storage capacity.

Instead, they say, the most likely problem associated with information overload is loss of focus.

Zoning Out

"It's like a tree in a forest problem," says Gordon Logan, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "The more things we have to remember that are similar to other things, the harder it is to focus on a single item. The bigger the forest, the harder it is to remember a single tree."

He points out, as useful as it would be, our memories do not come equipped with a "record" button. Activating memory requires concentration and practice. If your life is busy, applying steady concentration becomes challenging.

In fact, chances are your attention has already begun to drift.

We all do it (some more than others). And Jonathan Schooler of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania has found people "zone out" more than they realize.

Schooler conducted studies in which he asked subjects to read from a textbook. Then at random intervals he and his colleagues interrupted the readers and asked whether they were still on task. He found that over 45 minute periods, people's minds wandered for about 15 percent to 20 percent of the time.

"People zone out very frequently and they often do it without knowing it," Schooler said. "There's so much information in our lives to keep track of our minds constantly wander."

Other work has shown age and the time of day can also strongly influence how well we focus.

I’ll Think in the Morning

Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has found that adults older than 60 are generally much sharper in the early morning hours but their attentions drift by the afternoon. Students in their 20s appear to operate on a reverse clock and are highly distracted in the morning, but better focused in the afternoon.

"How well you remember comes down to attention regulation," Hasher explains. "And it turns out that circadian rhythms determine how much attentional control you exercise."

Of course, even if new information is diligently committed to memory, memories are imperfect and can fade, particularly with age. Endel Tulving, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, says cognitive abilities are generally at their best around age 25 to 30 and then start to decline.

One sign of a fading memory is more frequent tip-of-the-tongue experiences, or TOTs.

What's a TOT? Well, try this: Name the 1989 movie that earned Julia Roberts her first Academy Award nomination. You know the one about a beauty shop in New Orleans, also starring Dolly Parton, Sally Field and Olympia Dukakis? Can't quite remember?

If you know you know it but can't quite summon the name, you've just had a TOT. Deborah Burke, a psychologist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., has done studies showing that people older than 70 had 50 percent more TOTs than those 35 and under.

Some kinds of memories are more vulnerable than others to fading. Names of movies (if you couldn't remember, the movie was Steel Magnolias), cities and other such general knowledge fall under a category called semantic memory. Episodic memory includes recollections of personal experiences like how we spent last summer and procedural memory is the more automatic how-to memory, such as knowing how to drive.

Studies show that it's usually episodic and semantic memory that are first affected by age and disease.

Preserving Your Brain

Knowing that memory can fade with age and an overloaded life can max out the mind's ability to focus, is there anything to help ensure a good memory? Researchers have come up with some advice:

Limit drinking and smoking — studies have shown both habits can degrade memory over time.

Try associating new information with facts, songs, names or other things that you already know — memory sticks best when it's encoded with existing memories.

Focus and practice. Adding information to your mind in smaller bundles appears to be more effective than loading it up with lots of information all at once.

If you still find yourself forgetting names, numbers and other details, Logan says don't sweat it. It's likely your world, not you, that's the problem.

"I think our memories are as good as our grandparents' were, but we have more information to deal with," he says. "That means you remember the same amount as your grandmother did, but you'll end up forgetting things, whereas she didn't."