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Can't Recall What's-His-Name? Don't Worry. It's Normal

Joe Lieberman official portrait

Ben Stiller in NYC

Do you remember this politician? His face is so familiar, but what the heck was his name?

Or how about the celeb pictured next to him? He was in a bunch of movies, but his name .... darn, it's on the tip of my tongue.

Exactly. These annoying " tip-of-the-tongue" moments - when you know the name but just can't retrieve it from your memory - seem to happen more often as we age and we often wonder if it signals some kind of brain decline.

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Don't worry, say two University of Virginia psychology researchers.

In a new study published this month in the journal Psychological Science, they found no association between the frequency of tip-of-the-tongue moments as we age and performance on memory tests typically used to diagnose memory problems.

Timothy Salthouse, Ph.D., director of the university's Cognitive Aging Laboratory, and Arielle Mandell, then an undergraduate researcher working on her senior thesis, tested more than 700 participants ranging in age from 18 to 99.

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What they found, said Mandell, now a graduate student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., is that "older adults experienced more tip-of-the-tongue moments than younger adults." And while these memory lapses are "extremely frustrating," there seemed to be no association between how often they occur and more serious age-related cognitive decline.

To elicit tip-of-the-tongue moments, the researchers asked participants the names of famous places, common nouns or famous people based on brief descriptions or pictures.

To be sure these really were tip-of-the-tongue lapses, meaning people knew the right answer but just couldn't recall it, participants were also given a multiple-choice list of answers to see if they would immediately recognize the right one.

Which descriptions were the most likely to produce a tip-of-the-tongue moment? "What is the name of the building where one can view images of celestial bodies on the inner surface of a dome?" and "What is the name of the large waterfall in Zambia that is one of the Seven Wonders of the World?" (Right answers: planetarium and Victoria Falls.)

Of the pictures of the politicians and celebrities, Joe Lieberman and Ben Stiller were most likely to cause one of those, "Wait, I know who he is but I just can't remember his name..." responses.

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In other words, just because you can't immediately name the guy who ran as Al Gore's vice presidential nominee in 2000, or the actor who played the hapless male nurse Gaylord Focker in the movie Meet the Parents, should not be considered a sign of impending dementia.


Ben Stiller: Jiyang Chen/

Joe Lieberman: U.S. Senate/

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