Is It Normal to Forget a Name?

Trouble remembering names is common in normal aging—and in Alzheimer’s disease.

Posted Mar 18, 2018

You’re at a party and you see him walking toward you. You’re sure you’ve met him before but cannot recall exactly where. Now he’s getting closer—and smiling at you—but you cannot remember his name…

Is this scenario familiar? Remembering names can be difficult for anyone, and it generally becomes harder as we age. But trouble remembering names is also common in Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia. How do you know when it is normal and when it is not?

To learn a name, the first thing that we need to do is pay attention when we hear the name. Then the name typically goes into a short-term, temporary storage area, and finally into long-term storage. When we want to recall the name, a cue or trigger, usually a face, is perceived by our eyes, processed, and then linked up with the long-term storage area and the name is retrieved. Sometimes retrieving the name occurs automatically, without effort, but at other times help is needed from an effortful search mechanism directed by our frontal lobes.

That’s a lot of steps to learn and retrieve names—no wonder they’re hard to remember! Let’s take a look at some of the many reasons that we can fail in recalling a name when we need it.

Very often the problem is that we didn’t learn the name well in the first place. Perhaps we didn’t hear it clearly, whether the problem was due to our own hearing or a crowded, noisy room. Maybe we were not paying attention when the person was introduced; perhaps we were thinking of what we were going to say instead of paying attention to the name. The problem could also be that our short-term memory storage area (the hippocampus) or the long-term memory area for people’s names (the anterior or front part of our temporal lobes) aren’t working well. Lastly, the trouble could be due to something in the retrieval process, whether it is a problem with our vision (maybe we need new glasses) or the active search mechanism directed by our frontal lobes.

For healthy individuals of any age, perhaps the most common issue is difficulty remembering the name of someone you’ve just met a few minutes earlier. Assuming the problem isn’t simply that the music was too loud and you couldn’t hear the name, the usual cause is lack of attention when the name was said. Or perhaps enough alcohol was consumed to impair the function of the hippocampus, and the name didn’t make it into short-term storage.

For healthy older adults, another common problem is that the name is known—it is in your long-term memory area—but you are having difficulty finding it because the frontal lobe search mechanism doesn’t work as efficiently as it did when you were younger. Sometimes hearing and vision problems can also interfere. Importantly, however, because the name is still in storage, when you are given the right hint or cue, you are able to retrieve the name.

Alzheimer’s disease can damage the hippocampus, anterior temporal lobes, and frontal lobes. For this reason, in Alzheimer’s there can be difficulty paying attention when we are learning the name, difficulty storing the name in both our short-term and long-term memory, as well as difficulty in retrieving the name. Different from normal aging is that the name is often never properly stored or it is completely lost. Thus, in Alzheimer’s disease, even when a hint or cue is given, the name may not be able to be retrieved.

Names are difficult for everyone to remember but are particularly hard for older adults and those with brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The good news is that there are many strategies and techniques to help everyone better remember names. I will discuss these strategies in future posts.

© Andrew E. Budson, MD, 2018, all rights reserved.

References

Budson AE, O’Connor MK. Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory: What’s Normal, What’s Not, and What to Do About It, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Budson AE, Solomon PR. Memory Loss, Alzheimer’s Disease, & Dementia: A Practical Guide for Clinicians, 2nd Edition, Philadelphia: Elsevier Inc., 2016.