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The Truth Behind Senior Moments

What Causes Senior Moments and How to Manage Them

By

Updated June 26, 2014

Photo © Microsoft

Senior moments can be frightening, but usually they're nothing serious.

Photo © Microsoft
If you've ever experienced senior moments — a nonmedical term for mental glitches — you're not alone. A few years ago, I was buying groceries and had just swiped my debit card. The machine asked me for my PIN, which I had entered hundreds of times before, and I froze. I couldn't remember it for the life of me. As the cashier peered at me as if I was a possible identify thief, I quickly canceled the transaction and switched to a credit card that required no PIN.

My grandmother died of Alzheimer's disease. So did her mother. My father is 70 and shows no signs of the disease, but his mother and grandmother didn't develop it until their late 80s. We don't know yet whether the disease will strike three or more generations in a row.

Even though I was in my mid-30s when I blanked on my debit PIN, I couldn't help but wonder if there was something really wrong with me. I guess I was too young to call what happened a senior moment, but in reality, that's all it was.

I was sleep-deprived and stressed that day — two things that can bring on those dreaded senior moments. A few weeks later, I returned to the store, but this time I was calm and rested. I remembered my PIN without a hitch.

Over time, the brain often experiences some normal age-related memory loss. This happens for many reasons, such as decreases in neurotransmitters and brain size, which can make it harder to pay attention and process information. People with normal age-related memory loss, though, are usually able to compensate for these changes by using lists and other memory aids. In other words, the senior moments don't generally impair daily functioning.

A common type of senior moment does have a scientific name: literal paraphasia. This is when we distort a word by substituting one sound for another. Temporarily forgetting names, phone numbers or why you went upstairs ("What was I going to get?") are also common senior moments.

When senior moments make it hard to manage daily affairs, they may be early warning signs of Alzheimer's disease or another dementia. If you think your senior moments go beyond the realm of minor annoyances and occasional slips, be sure to see a doctor so your symptoms can be evaluated. There could be many causes for your symptoms, but the only way to find out what's happening is to have a thorough diagnostic workup.

What's troubling is that it's hard to know whether senior moments will never progress beyond what's normal or whether the senior moments are the beginning of something worse. There's also the possibility that those senior moments are signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a middle ground between normal age-related memory loss and dementia. That's why it's important to make note of senior moments over time and also ask others to tell you if they've noticed that the moments are becoming more frequent.

Our fast-paced society probably increases the chances of having senior moments. Multitasking makes it harder to retain facts, because we're not giving any one piece of information our undivided attention. Also, the fatigue and stress that many of us experience because we're overworked, reduce our ability to concentrate and pay attention to details.

Here are some tips to reduce the incidence of senior moments:

  • Do one thing at a time.
  • Notice how things look, smell, taste and feel, as well as what's happening, in order to remember something in multiple ways.
  • Replay memories in your mind to reinforce them.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Learn stress management techniques.
  • Reduce mental clutter by using calendars, lists and gadgets such as personal digital assistants (PDAs)

Senior moments can be scary, but most of the time they're just a result of the brain's normal aging process. Unless they're interfering with your ability to manage day-to-day activities, a few lifestyle changes should help you turn your senior moments into just occasional annoyances.

Sources:

Beck, M. (May 27, 2008). The science behind 'senior moments.' The Wall Street Journal Online. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121155964904517695.html

Doraiswamy, P. M., Gwyther, L. P., & Adler, T. (2008). The Alzheimer's action plan: The experts' guide to the best diagnosis and treatment for memory problems. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Understanding memory loss. National Institute on Aging (NIH Publication No. 06-5422). June 2007. http://www.nia.nih.gov/NR/rdonlyres/F35FE176-B3E6-4FD5-8FA0-C37E53EBCD89/0/understandingmemorylossJune2007.pdf

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