No, Forgetfulness Isn't Dementia

One of the most stress-inducing melodies on TV was meant to be a lullaby...

Originally, the song was called "A Time for Tony" instead of its current title, "Think!"

Merv Griffin, the creator of the TV game show Jeopardy!, wrote that ditty in 1963 to help his 5-year-old son fall asleep.

Since 1984, "Think!" has played as the opening and ending theme song for the show. And it's played during Final Jeopardy!, the stage where the winner of the episode is determined.

During Final Jeopardy!, the remaining contestants must rack their brains to think of the correct answer to a particularly hard question in just 30 seconds... with cameras trained on them, in front of a big studio audience, and that infernally cheery music playing in the background.

It would be stressful for anyone.

But you don't have to be on Jeopardy! to experience that kind of stress... the kind that comes from knowing the answer but not being able to think of the right word that's on the tip of your tongue. It's that teeth-gnashing, frustrating feeling where you might remember the letter the word starts with, or the way it sounds, but you just can't seem to dredge it from your memory.

This tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon happens to everyone. But suddenly finding yourself having to take five while talking to figure out that elusive word happens more often as you get older – even to the point where it can occur on a daily basis. It might have you worrying and wondering whether you're developing dementia... or something worse.

A University of Toronto study published last month in Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition found that you might not want to lose sleep over these annoying tip-of-the-tongue occurrences...

The study recruited 125 healthy adults (with English as their native language and without vision, hearing, or neurological problems), 89 of whom were middle-aged and older. The participants took three tests...

  • Testing recognition and ability to recall. The participants answered questions about a picture while wearing headphones that played distracting words.
  • Testing talking speed and frequency of pauses. The participants described two different complex pictures for a minute each. AI software helped the researchers analyze how well folks performed.
  • General testing of brain health, or mental abilities associated with cognitive decline and dementia risk.

Unsurprisingly, the older the participant, the more signs of decline he or she showed. But the results showed that talking speed in general was significantly associated with poorer brain health, while the number and length of pauses weren't associated with brain health.

Put simply, don't think those tip-of-the-tongue moments spell doom for your brain health. Rather, you should be more concerned about a slowdown in normal talking speed in yourself or a loved one as a sign of changes to brain health... regardless of how often and how long you pause to scrabble for that right word.

So what can you do to protect your brain from cognitive decline?

Move your body.

Aerobic exercise gets more of that oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood flowing to your brain tissues and improves the ability of your blood vessels to widen. It also prevents plaque buildup (or atherosclerosis) in your blood vessels – and it's well known that some forms of dementia and cognitive problems are linked to atherosclerosis in the tiny blood vessels of your brain, too.

Exercise also makes you smarter. It helps release special hormones that encourage brain-cell growth and triggers the formation of new connections between brain cells, too.

Personally, I love high-intensity interval training, or "HIIT," to get a heart-pumping workout in a relatively short amount of time. It has you switching between bursts of vigorous, "go all out"-intensity of exercise with short recovery, slower-paced exercise.

And as it turns out, HIIT can be safe even for folks with heart disease or who have had a heart attack. A 2023 eight-week study of nearly 400 U.K. adults found that folks who did HIIT just twice a week made bigger strides in improving heart and lung fitness – and only one participant developed chest pain.

(And make sure you haven't missed my write-up on my steps on how to help yourself or a loved one during a heart attack. If you're not already a Retirement Millionaire subscriber, click here to get started and get the full details.)

And on days where the thought of getting up to exercise makes you wince, remember that physical activity reduces stress and acts as a natural antidepressant. Just remind yourself that you'll feel a million times better once you've cleared the hurdle of motivating yourself to get started.

I, myself, love pedaling on my stationary bike for HIIT workouts. You don't need to buy expensive equipment or get a gym membership... All you need is a little bit of empty space around you, then hit "play" on an equipment-free HIIT exercise YouTube video (like this one) that guides you through rapid-fire exercises like jumping jacks and pretend jump-roping.

Now it's time to get up and get moving!

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
March 7, 2024