Everyone has forgotten the name of a good friend, misused a common word, or made a bizarre connection between events. Sometimes the faux pas is worthy of a good laugh. But at other times, it isn’t, such as when I was at a gasoline station unable to remember my zip code for the home I have lived in for 40 years and therefore couldn’t use my credit card, had two dollars in cash, and a long line of cars impatiently waited for me to pump gas.
We call events such as these “senior moments” and many believe it is a part of aging. But what if they are neither humorous nor inevitable? What if senior moments can provide us with insights into how our brain works today and maybe in the future? Before suggesting what senior moments are, let me briefly state what they are not.
Myths often govern our lives more than facts. While believing in myths may be infuriating in political discussions, its impact on how we approach our cognitive health as we age can be devastating. When I examined the popular literature for my book Preventing Senior Moments: How to Stay Alert Into Your 90s and Beyond, I found six myths that can lead seniors on a dangerous path.
Senior moments do not begin when you reach 60 or join AARP. Yes, they do occur more often in seniors. Still, there is no age starting line.
The word “moment” implies that these events are blips that pop up without connections to what proceeds it and vanish when it ends. But there are always precursors to senior moments. Think about one of yours that stands out, like forgetting an important appointment. How well did you sleep the night before the appointment? Was there something pressing that occupied your mind? Were you reeling from a colleague’s unskillful comment?
Believing that all senior moments are the same is like calling a fatty steak, a carrot, a banana, and a loaf of white bread “food.” Yes, they are all foods, but some will give you energy to run faster than a 30-year-old, while others may make you a candidate for a quadruple bypass.
Memory loss plays a significant role in many types of senior moments but not all. And there are many types of memory problems.
Yes, senior moments tend to occur more often as we age, but they are not inevitable, and linking them to aging is not helpful. It would be like asserting longevity results from a healthy lifestyle without identifying which are the responsible components.
I am sure you can recall a senior moment that was genuinely humorous. I have had too many to list, even if I could remember them. But my other senior moments were more concerning, like not remembering the title of my last book during a live broadcast interview.
Our identity is an amalgam of behaviors, beliefs, history, and expectations. Psychologists like Erik Erikson viewed it as a “gestalt,” the wholeness of who you are. Sociologists like Henri Talfel believed that identity also includes how a person relates to others, which includes senior moments. We can’t separate our embarrassing senior moments from our brilliant ideas. Personality is a package deal—your senior moments are part of the gumbo.
Several years ago, I enrolled in an expensive cycle training program promising that I would become fit in 60 days, decrease my cycle times by 30%, and live longer. I think implicit in the motivational speech was that my sex life would improve and I would grow more hair. Motivation is ephemeral and rarely enough by itself to prevent senior moments.
Investigators used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to compare what goes on in the brains of several people as they listened to the same story. The MRI findings showed differences across subjects in terms of which parts of the brain become active. The results explain why I cried watching the final battle scene in Les Misérables and the person sitting in front of me fell asleep. Similarly, it explains why you may have a senior moment, and your friend does not. The brain is constantly changing as it processes information about the world. Senior moments arise when there is a “hiccup” in any of the five sequential information processing steps. If you can identify the step, you are on your way to prevent senior moments.
The brain is wired to make sense of the world. It can group objects as similar, identify features, compare what it thought it knew to what is in front of it, etc. Some neuroscientists compare the brain’s ability to how a computer functions.
Attending Hiccup Example. You had a difficult week, and now your boss expects you to make a decision on which of the six products your company will represent. Although one product has an obvious feature not found in the others, you miss it because of your mental exhaustion. You choose an inferior product and your supervisor wonders if you are too old to make competent decisions. Your age was not the genesis of the error; your exhaustion was.
Understanding requires the brain to attach meaning to what it encounters. It does this in two ways: by focusing on content (e.g. words) and on form (e.g., how they are communicated).
Content Hicccup Example. Think about a time when you had difficulties using a new software program. You read the manual and thought you understood the words. You began the installation, following each step exactly, and prayed the program would work, but it didn’t. Your granddaughter calls it a “Grandpa senior moment.” Unbeknown to you was that the instructions were an inadequate translation from Japanese to English, Your error had nothing to do with getting older. The fault was the software company’s reliance on someone with a limited understanding of English to translate the manual from Japanese.
Form Hiccup Example. Misunderstandings that can lead to a senior moment can also occur because of the information’s form. I chose to learn Spanish when I was in my 60s. On the first day of class, the instructor informed us that from that day forward, only Spanish would be used. My inability to learn Spanish was not related to my age or cognitive ability but rather its presentation in a form that didn’t fit my learning style.
The placement of memories is complicated, with bits stored in various parts of the brain waiting for reassembly into a unified picture. Think of each memory as a Picasso masterpiece with fragments of a figure jumbled on the canvas. If it could be reassembled, you might see Picasso’s mistress winking at you. We do not know how the brain stores memories, but we think it is in the form of chemicals that reside in various places. When called upon, these data nuggets reassemble and form a memory montage of experiences and emotions.
Storage Hiccup Example. You are at an event, and you and your partner witness an angry interaction between two of the guests. However, each of you will store the event through different filters. You just came back from a Buddhist retreat that focused on understanding the origin of anger. Your partner returned from a company event where “responsibility” was highlighted. We know the brain sees events through filters that include experiences, beliefs, and needs. While each of you will store the same “basic” event, the memories will differ in subtle yet important features that could result in a senior moment.
Many people assume retrieval is no more complicated than turning on a light switch. Recent findings suggest that every time an event is recalled, it changes. Not a lot, but just enough to slightly deviate from what really occurred. The process is similar to the children’s “telephone game,” where a child whispers something to the next child in line. By the 15th retelling, the original message about the weather became something scandalous that happened in the teachers’ bathroom. Your brain will go through a similar process each time you recall an event or tell the same story. What you recall will NEVER be exactly what you stored.
Retrieval Hiccup Example. At a party, someone asks you to recall a heated discussion you observed. You begin describing an encounter that dismays your partner, who also was present. She thinks, “That’s not what happened. How can he get it so wrong?” There was no intention on your part to exaggerate or misinform, rather, the difference lies with your brain’s physiology, not in anything that should be called a “senior moment.”
Many of our “inappropriate usage” senior moments involve accurately retrieving behaviors but not appropriate for the context in which they are used.
Usage Hiccup Example. I play a Peruvian wooden flute called a quena and hoped to jam with indigenous musicians on a trip to Peru. Before leaving, I practiced several short musical phrases called “licks.” They are a series of notes that sound good when played together. Licks are inserted throughout songs and provide embellishments to basic melodies. While accomplished musicians know hundreds of licks, my repertoire consisted of 20.
I spent months memorizing the licks and practiced retrieving each perfectly. When my wife and I arrived at the train station for Machu Picchu, I saw a few musicians playing for tourists, and I asked if I could join them, and they graciously agreed. Although I retrieved each lick perfectly, I did not use any of them appropriately. The crowd still heard the melody but knew something was wrong and it was coming from the old guy with Harpo Marx hair. On the upside, my wife had another embarrassing senior moment story to share with our friends, rather than a story about my poor judgement.
If we choose to think about senior moments as humorous or an inevitable result of aging, we miss an opportunity to understand why they occur, what they may forecast for our cognitive future, and how to prevent them.
About the Author
Stan Goldberg is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Language and Hearing Disorders at San Francisco State University and the author of 225 articles and nine internationally award-winning non-fiction books. His latest book, Preventing Senior Moments: How to Stay Alert into Your 90s and Beyond is the first book that examines senior moments as windows into how we process information rather than a comedian’s punchline. More than 200 free articles on aging, cancer, caregiving, and chronic illnesses are found on his website, stangoldbergwriter.com
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