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They Aren’t Senior Moments

I received an email today from a friend and colleague. The email directed me to the January 10, 2020 article in the New York Times written by neuroscientist, Dr. Daniel J. Levitin. Upon reading the Opinion Article “Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong” I felt vindicated and slightly arrogant by what this neuroscientist said.

The basic gist of the article was this…we don’t become forgetful as we age. We become forgetful if we have a brain disease. Everyone forgets things. If someone in their 20’s or 30’s is forgetful, they rationalize it is because they have a lot going on. However, if someone in their 50’s or older forgets something, they call it a “senior moment” and worry about whether they have dementia or some irreversible medical condition.

The reason I felt vindicated is simple. Whenever I am struggling with recall, I will often say “Just a minute, I have to sort through my files (brain) to find that!” I say it because I honestly believe it’s the truth. The article referenced a study reinforcing that memory impairment is not a given as we age. He went on to say that as we age, we have more life experiences to draw on…therefore, we have more files to search to find the answer. Our brains really do become crowded with all sorts of memories, information, and tidbits we have stored. We have recall but sometimes it is slightly slower because of that.

According to this author, who I now believe to be a genius, the longer you live, the more stuff you have in that brain of yours. As I consider the article, I think of this analogy…maybe it is similar to searching for files on your computer or files in your desk. When you begin a search, you have to make sure you are using the right keywords. For example, let’s say I’m trying to remember the name of restaurant that served amazing chicken parmesan. First, I try the Italian restaurants in my memory bank. Then I consider the city the restaurant is located in. Finally, I think about who I was with when I had the chicken parmesan and I’m finally able to recall it.

I used to work with Reda…one of my favorite people because she was always smiling or laughing. When she retired, she gave us all a little warning about her filing system. She said, “you’ll need to think like Reda when you are trying to find something.” Reda had a unique filing system. If you were looking for a copy of a repair bill paid to a plumber, you would never search under the P’s for “plumber”. Don’t bother to look under R’s for “repairs” either. I had to look under K for “kitchen repairs” or D for “dishwasher repairs”. While I have zero research to support my assertion, I do believe our brains are similar. Things aren’t always stored where you think they might be.

Okay, maybe I’m overly simplifying it but research does support that our recall is sometimes delayed by the volume of memories we have to sift through. It makes sense that we could all benefit by a little more kindness to ourselves. Instead of jumping to the worst possible conclusion when you are struggling with recall, pause and change the “keywords” you are trying to search with.

And if you truly are concerned about your memory, talk to your healthcare provider or contact the ADRC for a free, confidential memory screen. Memory screens are not diagnostic but they can help you learn more about what is within the normal range, and what might warrant further evaluation by your provider.

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