"Hello . . . Hello .. . you know," the caller says sheepishly, after identifying herself, "I know I'm returning someone's call, but I forget whose."
"That's OK," the person on the other end replies. "I know I did call you, but I can't remember why."
Scenes like this are becoming common as baby boomers slouch more forgetfully than regretfully -- toward 50.
Yet another pair of eyeglasses goes astray. More and more "belated birthday" greetings get sent, more and more belatedly. Important pieces of paper -- some, in fact, lists of things not to forget -- sit gathering dust in special places that no one can remember. Running out of Post-Its becomes a minor tragedy. And wristwatches that beep reminders and memo pads that can be stuck to a --board suddenly qualify as alluring gift possibilities.
Meanwhile, words for simple, everyday objects such as "dish towel" creep further from the tip of the tongue, where they belong. With them go the names of those we met yesterday and of people we've known since our hair was all its original color.
"Our impression is that nine out of 10 people you ask would be unhappy with their memory," says Matthew Goerke of Mega Memory in Merrillville, Ind., billed as "the world's largest memory training institute."
Failing memory is a source, he says, of much negative self-image. "And everyone feels like they are alone with it," he adds. "Then people come to a class and are surprised at how many others have this same problem."
Is the memory loss many of us perceive real or just an illusion?
"In an age when Alzheimer's disease gets so much publicity, anxiety about memory loss is very common," says Andrew Weil, a physician and author of "Natural Health, Natural Medicine" (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). "In my experience this fear is more of a problem than memory loss itself, since the vast majority of people who think they are losing memory are not."
"That's pure nonsense," says psychologist Thomas Crook III of the Memory Assessment Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The great majority of people, by the time they are 50 or 60, have experienced memory difficulties." But, he adds, "it is extremely unlikely that this is an early warning of Alzheimer's disease. It's much more likely that it is a normal developmental change."
His opinion comes after 11 years' research studying nearly 50,000 people to see how memory and learning change with age.
In previous times, old age was perceived as a period of death and disease, and that was that, Mr. Crook says.
"But now the media sends out conflicting messages, such as, 'It's great to grow old, nothing bad really happens, it's the best time of your life.' On the other hand, you also hear, 'There's a dreaded disease out there called Alzheimer's that involves incapacitation, a vegetative state, inability to recognize your own family -- and the first sign is memory loss.' "
Mr. Crook favors a new entry -- "age-associated memory decline" -- in the fourth and latest edition of the "American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (called "DSM-4"), to describe people over 50 "without dementia . . . who have adequate intellectual function, who complain of gradual memory loss since early adulthood that interferes with important tasks of daily life, and who show objective evidence on performance tests that such loss has occurred."
He wanted the problem to have a label, the better to find a solution within the realms of scientific research. "The whole idea that we just accept what nature dictates is alien to medicine and science," says Mr. Crook. He makes the analogy of using eyeglasses to correct farsightedness.
"When people complain to their doctor that they can't read the newspaper, we don't simply accept that as a natural condition of aging, we try to alter that state if we can," says Mr. Crook. "The same thing is true about memory: Most people will experience memory loss, and if we can do something about that, we should."
At 47, Moshe Lachter of New York City says he hasn't found any great change in his memory, despite the amount of detail in his life. He runs his own advertising design company.
"But I've never been able to remember names. All the things they tell you to do, like repeat the name right away a few times, I've never done them," he says.
"I'm just too distracted during introductions. I'm thinking of other things."
At work, though, it's a different story. Mr. Lachter says he's never had a single disaster that could be laid at the door of forgetfulness. Maybe because, he guesses, it's just easier to remember those things that are crucial to one's survival.
Fear of forgetfulness
While anxiety seems to be a boon to Moshe Lachter's tracking of detail, generally it acts as an enemy of good recall.
"Attention span shortens as we get older, and in stressful situations," says psychologist Danielle C. Lapp, author of "Don't Forget! Easy Exercises for a Better Memory" (Addison-Wesley). "It's not surprising that it is hard to recall things. You must be relaxed and you must focus. Then you will remember.
"Problems of attention lie at the core of memory disturbances. Without attention, nothing can be recorded in our minds, and hence nothing can be recalled," she says. Ms. Lapp, a member of the memory research team in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Stanford University, leads memory-training courses.
Lack of attention can result from different causes, Ms. Lapp says, but anxiety is the most common: "When one is anxious, one is preoccupied with anxiety. When people fear they will not be able to remember something, they waste time and energy worrying, instead of doing what has to be done to fix a memory: concentrating on what is to be remembered."
To patients worried about failing memories, Dr. Weil recommends changes in diet, more exercise and supplements such as anti-oxidant vitamins. But, he says: "The secret of memory is attention. If your attention is not in the right place when something goes by that you want to remember, you will not remember it, no matter how good your memory is."
And, Dr. Weil continues, the secret of attention is motivation.
"In fact, many of us are not really as interested in remembering as we think we are. It may be that motivation changes as we age, more than memory itself."
USE IT OR LOSE IT
Whether or not they agree on the inevitability of memory loss with age, experts say there are ways to develop your recall:
* Name that face: "When you meet a person, be sure to repeat their name as often as three times," says Matthew Goerke of Mega Memory in Merrillville, Ind. "That will get you past the embarrassing first minutes." So, as soon as you are shaking hands with Agnes for the first time, say, "Agnes, that's an interesting name," "Agnes, where are you from?" and so on. "It forces you to focus, and it uses the verbal portion of your memory."
* The eyes have it: "Ninety percent of memory function is visual," says psychologist Danielle C. Lapp, author of "Don't Forget! Easy Exercises for a Better Memory." "People who are visual are ahead of the game." Here's one way to exercise your visual memory: Choose a detailed photo from a magazine or a picture from a museum catalog or a children's book. Examine it closely for half a minute, systematically making mental notes on the items that compose the scene. Then cover the picture and list everything in it you can remember. After a few trials with different pictures, experts say, chances are your visual recall will improve.
* Stick your nose in a novel: One of the best ways to develop memory is to stimulate your imagination, says Mr. Goerke. "Television," he says, "is therefore one of the biggest enemies of memory. Reading a book gives you words, and you have to imagine pictures to go with it. By giving you both pictures and words, television takes away that imaginative factor."
* Go easy on yourself: "Learn to react positively in the face of blatant forgetfulness," says Ms. Lapp. If you can't recall something you want to, she adds, try not to feel guilty: "Do not berate yourself and make a mountain out of a molehill. The sooner your anxiety level drops, the sooner memories will spring back."