Elders and National Hugging Day
The Terrible Hidden Toll of Being Old and Unemployed

Senior Moments: A Feature, Not a Bug

It is “common knowledge” that turns up every day in print, online, in movies and TV shows: old people are all incompetent, can't learn anything new, don't care about sex, are depressed and senile.

Of course, none of that is true but the myths stubbornly abide. One that is widely believed and feeds all the rest is that when we reach old age, we are all on a one way trip to dementia. Even a lot of old people believe it:

“When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

“Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.”

That's from an story in The New York Times that I reported on here six years ago.

I'm repeating some of this old blog post because a few days ago, my friend Judy Graham alerted me to a report of a more recent study published in Psychology Today this month upholding this phenomenon:

“Healthy aging, as [researcher Michael] Ramscar explains,” writes Thomas T Hills, PhD., “may be nothing more than gaining more experience and then dealing with the consequences of having learned from that experience...

“Ramscar puts it this way: 'Older adults’ changing performance reflects memory search demands, which escalate as experience grows.' And this makes them slower...

“Youth has the benefit of speed and flexibility, but age has the benefit of wisdom and guile…and slowness.”

Surely like me, you've joked about how long it takes to find the word you're looking for, for just this reason and it becomes more evident with each new research project that we've been correct about it all along.

Just as Hill further explains about Ramscar's work:

“The message is fairly intuitive. Our computers slow down as we store more information on them. Information gets harder to find in libraries for each additional book stored in that library. Libraries are vast and valuable, but they are rarely fast.”

So let's put the brakes on “senior moment” excuses and accept that this is how old brains operate – more slowly sometimes, but usually more accurately.

There is much more detail in Thomas Hill's report of this research study here, and you can read the full study as html or pdf here which is available for free.

ANNOUNCEMENT: In keeping with letting myself off the hook for too many responsibilities while sick, I have not prepared stories for The Elder Storytelling Place this week. They will return next Monday 27 January.


Gee, I'm very glad to be reminded of the reason for very long pauses while I try and remember anything at all. Hope you are feeling better.

So that's why I am often struggling to find the correct English word, because I have to sift through all the Dutch words as well now...

I've noticed during my adult life that some of my really brainy friends speak that way too, thoughfully, choosing from what I imagine is their knowledge bank for just the right thing.

Thank-you Ronni for this reassuring article. I search for words all the time and this helps me visualize the reason for it.

This was comforting news. I have become worried about being able to recall words I know I should have on the tip of my tongue.

I have noticed it happens more frequently with I am tired or under stress. I suppose that's logical.

As you age everything slows down, so why not the brain as well?

And it doesn't help that a lot of our prescriptions -- like those for cholesterol -- exacerbate the problem. I just discovereted that recently and it really made me angry. Frankly, I'd rather be dead than spend my last days in la-la land.

Sometimes I wonder if it really is that much more frequent as we age. I see the same kind of forgetfulness in my young relatives and colleagues, but they don't worry about it. (I love to remember the time my 20-yr-old nephew forgot he had the family car out and walked home!) I suppose I didn't fret much about it back then either...but I can't really remember. ;)

My aunt told me years ago that with time our brains fill up and now every new bit of info we take in something's got to go, there's just not enough room for it all. Works for me :)

I am surprised at how much "forgotten" information still resides in my brain. I never used the Spanish I learned in school. When I started learning French, I would often retrieve the Spanish word for whatever French word I was trying to recall, and suddenly I was able to say the sentence in either Spanish or French. Unfortunately, it greatly slows my retrieval for French...

I think about this topic a lot as I observe my own conversation or thought process, and my observations fit right in with the studies discussed here.

Several years ago--partly in fun--I came up with the Rolodex Theory of Recall. The idea is that as we age, we accumulate so much information and so many names of songs and singers, books and authors, movies and TV shows and actors, and all sorts of other stuff that we sometimes can't come up with a name the instant we want to.

I've learned not to force it. If you let it go, the word or the name will just come. Perhaps not right away, but it's there and will pop into your mind.

My doctor and I discussed this when I felt I was "losing" words. She gave me a battery of tests and said I was just fine, but I was trying to do too much at one time. The word or phrase wasn't gone, it was just pushed back by all of the other stuff I had going on.

My doctor also told me that a problem with someone like me who always performed at a very high level has trouble not doing that. She said I was more like everyone else now!

Nearly three years ago when I took on the full-time care of my 91 year old mother-in-law who had severe dementia, I began studying aging, dementia, and related subjects. I never really have been concerned about the "senior moment" issue, as almost all of my friends and I, who are now mostly in our early to late 60's, had been laughing about forgetting names and words for more than a decade. One friend had, in fact, labeled this "CBS" for "Cluttered Brain Syndrome", back when we were still in our forties. So no biggie there. And, in witnessing the advance of true dementia in my MIL for almost two decades by the time she required full-time care, I was well aware that it was so much more than slight memory lapses. It had perhaps started out that way very early on, but she managed quite well for the early years, well over a decade. In fact, she and her husband managed so well, remaining in their own home in the suburbs, and still driving themselves most places, until they were both nearly 90, that we did not realize how far along she was by the time he died.They had compensated for each other amazingly well. He was the brains of the operation and she was the brawn. So what I worry about signs of in my husband and myself is very different from silly senior moment incidents. What I watch for is a bigger loss of recognition of all kinds of things, a loss of understanding and a confusion that is very different from minor lapses in recall.

Personally, I think the projection of the numbers of people who will develop true and severe dementia is over- exaggerated and over-hyped. Lots of people are making or hope to make lots of money off this, and that's just sad.

Nearly 30 years ago, after my mother-in-law died and was confirmed to have had Alzheimer's, I learned that: If a person eventually thinks of the word they need, the lack of recall did not foretell Alzheimer's. Had Alzheimer's caused the lack of recall, the word would never have presented itself.
It seemed to me that, this was not definitive because surely the person with Alzheimer's will, at least on occasion, suffer from the crowded brain syndrome, too.

Ha! Loved reading about this, and of course reading the article. Just a couple of weeks ago I posted about something similar and was thrilled to have the experts confirm what I already knew.

Thanks for sharing Ronni!

If only our brains had a "defrag" program. It would bring all the important stuff to the foreground and file away that crap we learned in 5th grade to the deep dark reaches of the mind. An antivirus program wouldn't hurt either.

well, i've been saying that for a long time too: of course young people can remember things better because they are empty headed with little information in their heads, while our brains are full of lots of knowledge that we need to sift through to find what we want...makes perfectly good sense!

Funny I can remember in startling detail my first teenage girl fight, complete with flinging an earthworm at her face, but oh, remind me again,what was the name of that movie we saw last week?

How true, Bruce. I'm still trying to cram in useless info for quiz-playing and there's no more room at present.

Great topic and great comfort to know that we perhaps know too much as we get older. It's true for me though, what Madeline says -don't force remembering a word, it'll come later.

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