The Myth of the "Senior Moment"
Have you ever forgotten where you left your car keys? Walked into a room and realized you have no idea why you’re there? Misplaced your sunglasses only to find they’re sitting on your head? If you’re over 50 you may have found yourself making a sheepish comment about “senior moments” after doing one of these things.
It’s a phrase that’s crept into our vocabulary over the past few years, and it’s used to excuse or explain away those embarrassing little episodes of forgetfulness. We sigh and shake our heads and mutter “senior moment,” then shrug and go on, accepting the idea that once we pass 40 our memories naturally become less reliable. The older we get the more forgetful we’re likely to be. Or so popular wisdom says.
But sometimes popular wisdom is pretty dumb. Here’s the truth:
The whole idea of “senior moments” is a myth.
There’s no such thing as a senior moment
We all forget things sometimes, regardless of our age. Everyone sometimes draws a blank when they try to recall a name. Everyone sometimes forgets why they walked into a room. It’s part of being human, and it happens to eight-year-olds as well as eighty-year-olds. Research shows that in spite of popular wisdom, getting older doesn’t mean your memory becomes poorer. Memory loss, when it occurs, is part of Alzheimer's or dementia. It is emphatically not part of normal aging.
In fact, a Boston Medical Center study of people who live to be 100 actually found that 90% of participants had no decrease in mental functions until they were well into their 90s. And a 1999 study which had followed the same group since 1956 found that middle age and older was actually prime time for participants’ brains. They measured verbal and numerical ability, reasoning, and verbal memory, and found that participants did significantly better during middle age than they did when they were young.
The only major change in brain function, if we’re healthy, is in the speed with which we process information. And there’s a growing consensus that this may very well be because older brains have so much more information to be sorted through—like a computer with 1,000 gigabytes of data compared to one with only 100. The more information there is to sort through, the longer it takes to find things. Alzheimer's, on the other hand, is a case of having large parts of the hard drive erased.
So there’s no such thing as a senior moment—we just notice the normal human moments more when we hit middle age. Why?
Because of our good friends at Big Pharma and Big Advertising, of course.
Aging is big business
There are an estimated 106 million people aged 50 or over in the U.S., and they have a lot of purchasing power. The over-50s make 41% of all new car purchases. They buy a quarter of the country’s toys. And most significantly, they account for 60% of all healthcare spending.
That’s a lot of dollars. And as the overall population gets older, those numbers will just get bigger. What better way to cash in on the older demographic than to turn normal aspects of aging into medical “conditions” which need treated? Or even create new conditions? Big Pharma, Big Medicine, and Big Advertising form an unholy trinity that has succeeded in medicalizing many normal aspects of life, from birth to menopause to thinning eyelashes. Simply turn on your TV during any given evening and pay attention to the advertisements.
The old adage that sex sells is true, but there’s something that sells even better than sex: fear. The concept of the “senior moment” started appearing around the time that Alzheimer’s disease became a household word. And though the "senior moment" has nothing to do with Alzheimer's or dementia, it plays on some of our deepest fears.
Through carefully crafted media, the idea was planted in our psyches: getting older means memory loss. It means your brain doesn’t work as well as it did when you were younger. It means you shouldn’t trust your own judgement, and you need to rely on some external authority to help make your decisions—especially your health decisions.
It sent the message that you are not competent. After all, you can’t even remember where you put your car keys, right? But that’s ok. You’re just having a senior moment. Just relax and give up control to someone else, like your doctor or your drug company.
You guessed it. Big Pharma has a pill for you
The senior moment was a very subtle but important step toward disempowering one of the most important segments of society. It helped convince us that age is a disease that could and should be treated. This was followed by a tsunami of lifestyle drugs and optional medical procedures aimed squarely at those 50 and over.
Now Big Pharma is considering offering a drug to combat those “senior moments” it’s convinced us we have. The drug is Riluzole, which is currently used to treat Lou Gehrig’s disease, an extremely serious neurological disease. Unsurprisingly, its drugs.com entry has a list of side effects two pages long. All are uncomfortable. Some are life-threatening. But it will supposedly take care of those senior moments that bother us so much. What’s a little nausea and chest pain compared to that?
What you can do
- If you’re worried about your “senior moments,” you can probably relax. Experts agree that one of the first signs of worrisome memory problems is not noticing that you forget things. If you think your memory is fine, but your friends and family remark on your forgetfulness, then you may have cause to worry.
- Use your brain often. The more you use it, the more useable it becomes. Take up a hobby, learn a new language. Try something you wouldn’t normally do. Keep your brain engaged.
- Break your habits and routines. Habit and routine are the enemy of your brain.
- Don’t worry if you have occasional “senior moments.” It’s part of being human, and stress itself affects your memory.
Now…where did I leave my keys?
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