So you think you're having a senior moment? Think again

Beware of the term "senior moment." It might only make things worse.

Posted Dec 01, 2009

A 42 year old man laments his diminishing memory over the fact that he cannot find his keys. A 55 year old woman struggles to recall the name of the new office assistant. A 47 year old man agonizes over having forgotten to pick up milk on his way home. They, like many other middle-aged adults, may attribute their mental lapses to that terror of terrors, the "senior moment." I first heard the term while waiting in line for an elevator when a man seemingly in his early 50s proclaimed to all within earshot, that he was having a senior moment because he could not find his wallet. Everyone around him nodded appreciatively, murmuring in assent as to the inevitability of this phenomenon. No one thought to offer any alternative explanations of the temporary glitch in his cognitive functioning.

In the first place, the odds are that no matter how deficient your memory seems to be, you will not become a victim of this devastating illness. Although the number of Alzheimer's patients may seem high, the percent of the over-65 population with documented Alzheimer's remains relatively low (5-7%).

Second, even if your brain is starting to develop those notorious plaques and tangles associated with the disease, you may not necessarily experience memory loss. High levels of education and continuing mental activity can't erase the plaques and tangles, but they can help stave off the associated behavioral problems.

Third, there are many strategies you can use to keep your memory active and effective. The most important is to follow the advice of this handy little phrase used by cognitive psychologists : "If you don't encode, you can't retrieve." The importance of this advice is demonstrated by asking people to choose the correct picture of a penny from among a display of nine or ten that look almost identical. The idea is that you use pennies all the time-- you should be able to recognize the correct combination of presidential profiles, Latin words, placement of the "one cent" and so on. However, hardly anyone even mental gymnasts in their 20s can make the correct choice because hardly anyone actually bothers to stare and then memorize the front and back of this common object.

Because many midlife and older adults lead complicated and busy lives, our minds are often going in many directions at once. Multi-tasking not only can lead airline pilots to miss their destination, but can also destroy our ability to remember. If you want to put your memory to maximum effectiveness, try mono-tasking. Did you leave an important document at home that you needed to bring to work? Chances are you put the document somewhere it shouldn't have been at home because you were thinking about something else at the time, or carrying up the laundry while holding it, or thinking about what you're going to cook for dinner. If you actually stopped doing three things at once and thought about putting the document in your briefcase, there is a very good chance it would have made it with you to work rather than languishing at the bottom of your sock drawer.

The true danger of the senior moment lies in the phenomenon known as stereotype threat, a term that psychologist Claude Steele invented, and it provides brilliant insight into why it is that some people do not perform to their maximum potential. When you are in a testing situation and you've been made aware of some attribute about yourself relevant to that situation, you may fall victim to this pernicious kind of negativity. Your performance will deteriorate the more you believe in that stereotype and the more you are made aware of it. 

In other words, thinking that you're having a senior moment may cause you to have that senior moment. I am currently conducting a study with a colleague, Tammy Rahhal, and a recent Ph.D., Kelly Jones, in which we manipulate the conditions to make older adults more or less aware of their performance on a memory task and then observe the outcome in their performance. We are finding that when people feel  that they have lower memory ability (whether or not they do), they ultimately perform more poorly. Rahhal speculates (and has some data to support this) that if we could avoid any suspicions on the part of our older participants that they are in a memory study, perhaps they would show no memory deficits at all. A radical proposition, perhaps, but not totally im

If we could banish the term "senior moment" completely, then, it could help set the stage for a new era in which middle-aged and older people don't worry about and doubt themselves every time their memory fails them. Those mental blips are a normal part of life, and the chances are, they are not the beginning of an inevitable decline. Keep up your faith in your mental abilities, and your mental abilities will continue to serve you long and well.

To learn more about Alzheimer's Disease, visit the National Institute on Aging and the American Psychological Association's Division 20 website.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2009

References:

Bonnesen, J.L, & Burgess, E.O. (2004). Senior moments: The acceptability of an ageist phrase. Journal of Aging Studies, 18, 123-142.

Rowe, J.W. & Kahn, R.L. (1998). Successful aging. New York: Pantheon Books.