THE BLOG
12/21/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2013

Are You Truly Having A Senior Moment? Probably Not

Creeping into our everyday vocabulary over the past few years, the term "senior moment" is now the chief lament of midlife adults who fear they are losing their memory. You've probably used this term yourself on at least one occasion. Perhaps you forgot where you put your keys, blanked on the name of an acquaintance or couldn't recall whether you turned off the oven after you left the house. "I'm having a senior moment!" you mutter to yourself or complain to your friends. Although you're probably half kidding, that other half secretly fears that you're showing the early signs of serious memory loss.

Fear of developing memory loss is a common concern of people 55 and older. In research I conducted a number of years ago on people's concerns about aging, I found that the number one age-related change that people feared the most was changes in their memory.

Why are midlife adults so fearful of memory changes?

On a practical level, memory lapses are inconvenient, time-consuming and embarrassing. Digging around rooms in your home for those misplaced keys eats up precious moments of your day. Forgetting the name of a neighbor or co-worker makes you look socially inept. We would save countless hours and agony if we never misplaced anything. However, the fear of memory loss goes deeper than this. Losing your keys might mean that you're losing your mental abilities. You interpret this mental glitch as a sign that you will soon become a victim of the dreaded form of dementia (clinically significant memory loss) known as Alzheimer's disease.

What are the odds of getting Alzheimer's disease?

You've convinced yourself that your senior moments are a sign that you're on your way to getting Alzheimer's disease. How realistic is this fear? Reports in the media regularly cite figures that would frighten anyone 55 or 60 and older. The Alzheimer's Association claims that 5.5 million U.S. adults have dementia and that the number will only skyrocket with each passing decade as baby boomers continue to age. Because Alzheimer's disease is neither preventable nor treatable, this figure has a ring of inevitability about it that would scare anyone in the right age bracket whose had a few memory lapses.

However, you need to look more closely at these figures. The Alzheimer Association's own reports state (in the fine print) that they're talking not only about Alzheimer's but all forms of dementia, many of which are both treatable and preventable. The most significant of these is dementia caused by cardiovascular disease. So-called vascular dementia involves memory changes that can be reversed or at least slowed by treating the underlying illness. What's more, by exercising, watching your diet, and controlling your intake of tobacco and alcohol, you can greatly reduce your risk of getting this form of dementia. Therefore, your odds of getting Alzheimer's disease are much lower than you might think.

What should I do if I think I'm starting to get dementia?

If you believe that your memory lapses may signify that you have an underlying disease, then you might consider consulting a neuropsychologist. Your family physician or nurse practitioner may be someone you want to talk to first, but the average health professional doesn't have the diagnostic skills to pinpoint the underlying problem. You may be getting dementia, or those memory lapses might signify something far less ominous and potentially very treatable.

What can cause memory lapses other than dementia?

There are a host of competing causes of memory loss other than dementia per se. Here is a partial list:

1. Stress
When you're stressed, you're not as able to focus on what you're doing. If you're not attending to an experience (such as putting your keys down on a table), you'll never get the information you need into memory storage. As we say in psychology, "If you don't encode, you can't retrieve." In other words, to remember something you have to pay attention to it in the first place. Stress distracts your attention from what you're doing while you attend, instead, to the other problems and concerns swirling around in your mind.

2. Lack of sleep
People who are sleep-deprived don't remember things as well as people who are well-rested. If your life is on a hectic pace, as it is for many midlife adults, you're probably not getting enough sleep. A proven way to improve your memory is, literally, to "sleep on it." Experiments have shown that people who sleep after learning new information remember more eight or even 24 hours later than those who don't.

3. Depression
People who are depressed often look very much like people who have dementia in terms of memory loss. However, their memory loss is not of the progressive nature that occurs in people with dementia. When the underlying depression is treated, their memory returns.

4. Medications
Many medications that midlife adults take for chronic health conditions can interfere with their memory. These often interact in ways that cause people to feel depressed, sleepy and anxious. All of these conditions, as you've just seen, can interfere with memory. The problem of "polypharmacy" (taking many medications, some of which interact badly), is a serious one that affects millions of midlife and older adults who see multiple medical professionals. Conscientious health professionals, including pharmacists, avoid giving you medications that can have this effect on you.

What's so bad about the term "senior moment"?

As you've just seen, the chances of your having or getting Alzheimer's disease are lower than you probably figured. So why not just keep kidding around when you do have a memory slip? What's the harm in calling your little slip a senior moment? The problem with using this term is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your doubts and fears about losing your memory actually seep your attention away from the task at hand, causing you to have even more memory slips.

There's more than just self-fulfilling prophecies at work. Stanford psychologist Claude Steele discovered that when people identify with a stereotype, whether it's race, ethnicity, gender or age, they start to perform in ways that fit the stereotype; the "threat in the air," as he referred to it. Women, for example, perform more poorly than men, if they're made aware that a test is one on which men excel (such as math). In the case of older adults, if they believe that older adults have poorer memory, their own memory performance will suffer.

Because senior moments tap into our stereotype of memory loss being part and parcel of aging and Alzheimer's disease, they can cause this threat in the air to permeate your own mental abilities. What's worse, if you believe that memory loss and Alzheimer's disease are inevitable, you won't take the steps that could actually help you prevent memory loss in the first place such as keeping mentally and physically active. You also will fail to take advantage of memory tricks that can keep those lapses from happening because you'll think they can't help you.

The bottom line

The next time you lose your keys, cell phone or someone's name, stop and examine the circumstances surrounding this lapse. Were you stressed, tired, distracted? Maybe it wasn't age at all, but one of these competing factors. Whatever you do, don't let yourself believe that you're headed down the road to Alzheimer's disease on the basis of these everyday slips. Everyone, at any age, forgets. Your senior moment may be no different than the junior moments you've had your whole life.