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Why do I have trouble remembering names and words?

Having trouble remembering names and words is a common complaint, especially as we get older. There are a few key reasons why this happens.

Normal Age-Related Decline in Memory

As we age, it’s normal for our memory, particularly short-term memory, to decline somewhat. This is a natural part of the aging process. After age 50, it’s common to begin having more difficulty recalling names, words, or details of conversations after a short time.

This age-related decline in memory is thought to be related to changes in brain structure and function. The hippocampus, a part of the brain important for memory, shrinks with age. Connections between brain cells may also become less efficient. So when trying to form new memories or access recently acquired information, like a person’s name, our brains may have more difficulty with rapid retrieval.

Insufficient Attention

Another reason we can have trouble remembering names or words is that we didn’t properly focus our attention in the first place. To commit a name or word to memory, we need to actively pay attention, concentrate on the information, and mentally rehearse it.

If we’re distracted, not focused, or overloaded with too much information at once, the names/words we want to remember may not get properly encoded into memory to begin with. Later, when we try to retrieve the information, it’s just not there.


Even if we properly encode a name or word into memory, other competing information can interfere with retrieval. Interference can occur in two ways:

  • Proactive interference – when old memories disrupt recall of new information
  • Retroactive interference – when new information disrupts recall of old memories

When meeting someone named John, for example, having an old friend with the same name (proactive interference) can make it harder to remember the new John’s name later. Or, when meeting several new people in a row, their names can interfere with each other (retroactive interference), making it challenging to remember any one name.


High stress levels can also impair memory and cognitive function. When we feel stressed or anxious, stress hormones like cortisol are elevated, which can reduce blood flow to the brain’s memory centers in the prefrontal cortex. Acute or chronic stress can make it harder to focus, encode new memories, and retrieve old information.

Sleep Deprivation

Not getting enough sleep hampers our memory in several ways. Lack of sleep impairs attention, leading to incomplete encoding of memories. Sleep deprivation also disrupts consolidation, the process where fresh memories are transferred into long-term storage. After a night of poor sleep, the hippocampus essentially has more difficulty putting new memories “on the shelf” for later use.


The cognitive effects of depression can also impact memory. Depression reduces attention, motivation, and focus, making it harder to remember information like names, faces, or appointment times. Memory difficulties can also be a side effect of certain depression medications.

Underlying Health Conditions

Sometimes memory problems can be caused by other health issues, like:

  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Mild cognitive impairment

In these cases, treating the underlying condition may improve memory difficulties. Checking with your doctor can help determine if another health issue could be affecting your memory.

Ways to Improve Memory for Names and Words

While some degree of age-related memory decline is inevitable, the following strategies can help boost your recall and reduce problems remembering names, words, and other details:

  • Give focused attention during introductions and conversations.
  • Mentally repeat names and information you want to remember.
  • Associate names with visual images or other mnemonic devices.
  • Write down names and other key details soon after hearing them.
  • Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise to improve blood flow to the brain.
  • Practice stress management through yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.
  • Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Use memory aids like planners, calendars, or apps to help you remember appointments, tasks, and obligations.
  • Stay socially engaged and interact with others, which helps exercise the brain.


Difficulty remembering names and words is very common, especially starting around middle adulthood. Reasons range from age-related changes in the brain to insufficient sleep, stress, or underlying health issues. While some decline in short-term memory is to be expected, certain lifestyle changes, memory aids, and brain training games can help improve recall. But if memory problems are severe or interfering significantly with daily activities, check with your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.