The Tyranny of “Still”
Happy Ten Years, Oliver Bennett

Stupid After Lunch

Anyone who knows me well or, more particularly, talks with me in the afternoon or evening knows that my conversation then is peppered with such phrases as, “Oh, what is that word?” or “Well, I don't recall the name right now; maybe it will come to me later” or “Never mind, I forgot where I was going with this train of thought.”

It has been thus for so long now that I warn people: “We shouldn't try to do anything that takes brain power after about 2PM because by that time of day, I get stupid.”

It's not an excuse. It's true that I am much smarter in the morning and get more stupid as the clock hands pass noon.

This is a large impediment to accomplishing the work that matters to me: this blog and the Villages development that alone more than fill eight hours of every day.

In addition, my physical strength and energy wane at about the same pace so each day is a scramble to get everything done (blog and Villages work, the daily exercise program, shopping, bill paying, cooking, cleaning - you get the idea, pretty much anything other than lying about as a slug) before 3PM or so.

The difference in my capabilities between morning and afternoon/evening is so pronounced, it is almost like I am two different people. Now, science has provided me with a possible explanation.

"'Time of day really does matter when testing older adults,' says lead author John Anderson. 'This age group is more focused and better able to ignore distraction in the morning than in the afternoon.'

“He and his colleagues note that their study provides the strongest evidence yet that there are measurable differences throughout the day in brain function for older adults.”

John Anderson and his colleagues at the Rotman Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences and the University of Toronto published their results in the journal, Psychology and Aging.

It's a small study so more work may be needed. Nevertheless, the differences between ages and time of day are clear.

The initial study involved 16 young adults between the ages of 19 and 30, plus 16 older adults between the ages of 60 and 82. Between 1PM and 5PM, each person was given a sequence memory test while irrelevant words and pictures appeared on a screen as their brains were scanned with fMRI:

”The older adults who were tested in the afternoon showed signs of 'idling,' the researchers say, which means they were showing activations in the default mode - a set of regions that are activated when a person is resting or thinking about nothing in general.

“This could indicate that the adults were having a hard time focusing, because when a person is fully aiming their attention at something, resting state activations are suppressed.

“[However,] the team found that when another group of 18 older adults was tested in the morning between 8:30 and 10:30 am, they performed significantly better.

“In detail, they focused on fewer distracting items than their peers who were tested in the afternoon, and they even closed the age difference gap in performance with the younger adults.”

It has been known for awhile that old brains are more easily distracted than young ones, that elders commonly have more trouble focusing. And increased forgetfulness in old age (without dementia) even has its own name – senior moments.

Except for my daily personal experience, this is the first I have found that the time discrepancy may be a natural phenomenon of aging. And of course, as the authors point out, these results have important consideration for all cognitive research in elders:

"[Dr. Lynn Hasher, senior author on the paper,] adds that ignoring time of day when testing older adults on certain tasks 'may create an inaccurate picture of age differences in brain function.'"

In my case, maybe I've always had an old person's brain; the afternoon decline has been a difficulty for most of my adult life. I was in my mid-30s when my boss joked one day to the rest of the staff, “If you need Ronni to do anything, you'd better ask her before 3PM.”

Although I had not paid attention before then, when she said it, I knew she was right. It seems always to have been so that my mind slows way down not long after lunch.

You an read more about the studies here and here.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: Word of Mouth


So does a short twenty minute nap help? It worked for me when I was younger, in my twenties. Now at 78 twenty minutes is just a little too short.

Oh, I am so there. Senior moments started, for me, at about age 43. From observation (including of our great-grandsons), I'm betting that the same effect can be observed in people of all ages - especially those who are "morning" people.

BTW: The "senior moments" in this posting hit me right between the eyes. I see no difference between using this terminology and using the "still" addressed in the posting last Wednesday. They both, as we said in the 1960s, tell it like it is. (I see no ill intent behind either term.)

Of course, anything that I've been doing for more than two years (make that, two minutes, in some cases), I can understand someone's asking if I'm "still" doing it. I've always been a butterfly - not sticking with anything past the point where I had been exposed to it or had learned how to do it.

I have always been a morning person. I tried to take all my college classes before noon. Although in college I was also able to work until 10 pm or later and bounce right back up at 7 am.

Now, at 62, I have found that I don't do well at evening events. I am quite the talker, but after 4 pm, I begin to shut down, and by 7 I am pretty much silent. Not a good way to be if you are going to a party in the evening. I tend to just sit at a table and let the party swirl around me. Not many people give parties at 7 am.

I would like to profess that I have pretty much always been a 'morning person' but my latest senior moment does bring such statements into question...

I got extremely agitated recently that it was taking my morning piece of toast so long to pop out of the toaster. The only thing to surpass the agitation I felt was the subsequent stupidity when I realized I had never put any bread into the toaster! :)

I'm a morning person too although I do get 2nd wind if I can get about an hour's nap in around 2 or 3. I set the kitchen timer by my bed or I might sleep all afternoon and be up half the night. I used to sleep for 20 minutes in my car when I worked for the same reason. Same timer. Could only eat a salad lunch, food with any substance does me in too.

This reminds me of one company where I once worked where anytime something went wrong, we jokingly asked the question, "Was that decision made in the afternoon?"

I have found some things that really help though:

First is diet. I make sure I eat lots of fruits, vegetables and beans for lunch -- usually through a homemade soup (that I prepare in advance for the week) and a salad. And I stay away from bread products, desserts, etc. Not only does that lunch provide energy, but it is devoid of the dietary foods that sap our energies.

Second, is the 20 minute nap mentioned earlier. Since adapting a whole foods, plant-based diet, I very seldom run out of steam before the evening hours anymore. But when I do, I'll take a little nap. It's one of the nice things about being retired. We can nap when we feel the urge. Sometimes those naps can last as long as an hour --- whatever it takes for me to recharge.

I also think there's a third thing and that's to stay socially engaged -- and I don't mean through social media or the computer. I mean by getting out and actually being with people -- join a bridge club or a chess club, go out to lunch with friends,play tennis, go to the gym, etc. etc. Being with other people and having social interactions always keeps my energies up as well.

The study you mentioned is a small one, so I wonder if this is universally true for elders. Like others who have commented, I am a morning person, always have been. When I was working I didn't even need an alarm clock to get me up. At the office, I planned my work so that things requiring the most energy could be done in the morning; in the afternoon I did routine tasks.

But what about those who have always been night people? Surely they wouldn't run out of gas in the afternoon? My sister-in-law sleeps late in the morning and stays up late at night, and she's 8 years older than I am.

It's been well established that we all have internal body clocks, and it seems to me that wouldn't change as we age. Night people, speak up!

Okay, Nancy, I'll take this one. I was always an Owl and would stay up until 2 am reading. No more.

I am not sure when it happened, but I am in the big club of trying to accomplish everything before lunch because after that I am completely unable to concentrate or do any physical work.

I forgot to add that you really made me laugh out loud, Alan G. That beats hunting for your glasses when they are on top of your head.

Neither article mentioned the power of naps. I find that if I can get some solid nap time for about an hour or more in the early afternoon that I'm about as fresh as I am in the morning. But only for about two hours at best

I have always been a morning person. I have a slump in mid-afternoon. At work, that meant time for a short walk. Now that I'm not working, if a friend calls I will walk to meet her, otherwise I will often turn on the TV and watch a rerun of some program, usually a crime show. After supper, I get a second wind and can accomplish much more. I think I too notice that a large lunch or too much meat or bread can slow me down.

I'd always attributed such forgetfulness to increasing fatigue through the day and thought it perfectly natural. I used to speak of being Cinderella and turning into a pumpkin at midnight. But then it became 10 pm, 8 pm, 6 pm. Basically I'm worthless after dinner. But the inability to recall a certain word or name -- I've been attributing that to the fact that I live alone and don't have a lot of everyday conversations that would keep such details fresh in my mind.

Naps don't help. They require me to go through a "waking up" process (ugh!) that I'd rather endure only once a day. I do have to fight through a late afternoon "droop" around 4, but a snack then usually helps.

Like dkzody, I always took all my college classes in the morning. It was an absolute necessity. An econ lecture after lunch?Fuhgeddaboudit!

From an article in "Psychology and Aging" this quote..."A new study finds older adults have “morning brains.” They not only perform better on demanding cognitive tasks but also activate the same brain networks responsible for paying attention and suppressing distraction as younger adults, according to Canadian researchers." How long the morning lasts however, is anyone's guess.

I'm a night person. I feel like a zombie until coffee kicks in, and sometimes later. I eat the same breakfast everyday so am on automatic pilot as much as possible. I find that I can't discuss anything distracting with my husband or I'll end up putting olive oil in my coffee instead of in the pan for the eggs. It's happened.

I love to stay up and chat or work until midnight -- later and my productivity goes way down.

However, I've learned that I need at least 8 hrs sleep. When I do that and eat a low-carbs, no sugar lunch, I don't experience a slump in the afternoon.

So, I, too wonder at the study. I think I'll add to my Advance Directives that no one is to get me up earlier than 7AM unless it's an emergency.

One more night person here! After the 11:00 news, my husband goes to sleep while I read until 12:30-1:00 A.M. I've always accomplished more in the late afternoon and early evening. Conditions permitting, I do my walking then, too. Now that I'm semi-retired I occasionally (unintentionally) nap in the afternoon.

There may be something to this latest research but the fact of individuals' internal body clocks should be considered, as well.

Another night person here. I taught online college courses until recently. This allows both students and the teacher to work at a time that is best suited to their biological clocks. I wish this option was available when I had those dreaded 8 AM classes.

Definitely a night person also. Started when I married Gary. He had his own jazz group and played gigs every weekend. We were still in college and income from gigs during our college days was what we lived on until we signed teaching contracts after graduation. He is still playing gigs at age 74 and I always stay up and wait for him to come home! He loves music and the gigs, and I enjoy that time reading!

Interesting study, but could have saved time and asked anyone who works in an assisted living or nursing home. They call it "sunset syndrome" and have for years.

Night person. I don't get up until 10:30 or so. Stay up till 2am. I do my best work at night.

Cop car, thanks so much for the butterfly description of your attention span. It describes me to a T.

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