- It’s normal to occasionally forget someone’s name or why you entered a room. But these “senior moments” are more common in older adults.
- It can be unsettling to misplace or forget something, especially as you get older. And many people worry that this may be a symptom of other conditions — like dementia.
- Senior moments are not a cause for concern. But there are signs to help you know if something more serious is going on.
Moments of forgetfulness happen to everyone and at any age. You misplace your keys, a friend’s name suddenly escapes you, or you forget to buy something at the grocery store. And it’s normal for these moments to happen more often as you get older. This is why people call them “senior moments.”
Even though these memory lapses are normal, they can feel alarming. And they can make you wonder if something more serious is causing them. But there are clues that can help you tell the difference between a senior moment and other age-related conditions.
What is a ‘senior moment’?
A senior moment is a nonmedical term for a brief lapse of memory or a moment of confusion. While these are more common in older adults, senior moments can happen to anyone, at any age.
Examples of senior moments include:
- Forgetting where you put an object, like your keys or glasses
- Forgetting the name of a celebrity on television, a relative, or a friend you haven’t seen in a while
- Substituting one word with a similar but incorrect one
- Not remembering why you went into a room
- Having trouble recalling an address or phone number that you usually know by heart
- Forgetting to lock the front door or close the garage
- Losing the remote control
Senior moments can bring on nerve-wracking feelings for some people. And as you get older, you may worry that these moments mean the start of something more serious, like dementia.
Are senior moments normal?
Usually these senior moments are normal and nothing to worry about. Age-related memory changes happen to everyone. As you get older, the connections in your brain start to slow down a bit. That means you don’t process information as quickly as when you were younger.
But when given time to think, most older adults perform the same or better on tests of cognitive function as younger people. Cognitive function is a measure of how you think — specifically how you learn or problem-solve. Memory, reasoning, and language are all part of cognition.
What conditions related to aging can be confused with senior moments?
There are chronic conditions related to aging that people can sometimes mistake for senior moments. These include:
- Mild cognitive impairment(MCI): This syndrome is the loss of cognitive function beyond what experts consider normal for a person’s age. It’s not quite as serious as dementia. MCI does not interfere with your ability to perform their daily activities. And people who develop MCI may or may not go on to develop dementia.
- Dementia: Dementia describes problems with memory, thinking, and problem-solving skills. The key difference between MCI and dementia is that dementia interferes with your daily life. There are many types of dementia, but Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
- Silent stroke: Not all strokes are immediately recognized, especially if they cause subtle or no symptoms. Many strokes are not diagnosed until well after they occur when brain imaging picks them up. But these missed strokes can affect cognition and memory.
When should I be concerned about senior moments?
Senior moments are not a cause for concern — especially if they don’t happen too often. But it’s natural to wonder if your episodes are truly senior moments or if something else is going on.
Here are a few signs to know when you should talk to a provider about these episodes:
- The senior moments happen more often or increase in number.
- They get in the way of your daily activities. For example, if you can’t get through your day because you’re repeatedly misplacing things, it’s time to talk to your provider.
- Memory lapses cause you to get lost, or you find yourself in places that seem unfamiliar.
- You struggle to complete tasks that used to come easily — like balancing a checkbook.
Symptoms of senior moments vs. dementia symptoms
The major ways to tell the difference between a senior moment and dementia are:
- Effect on daily life: Dementia interferes with your ability to care for yourself.
- Reaction to episodes: Someone who has dementia does not always recognize when they forget something.
- Noticeable change in behavior: Dementia often affects your personality and the way you behave around others.
Let’s go through some examples. Someone who has normal, age-related memory changes will:
- Immediately recognize when they’re having a senior moment before it causes significant distress
- Locate their misplaced items within minutes
- Still be able to take care of themselves and complete their daily activities
- Use the wrong word in a sentence, but realize the mistake and correct it right away
In contrast, someone with dementia will often:
- Experience distress or frustration when they feel confused or forgetful
- Misplace common objects and be unable to retrace their steps to find them
- Have difficulty with their regular routine — like getting groceries or getting dressed in the morning
- Frequently pause while speaking because they can’t remember names or words
If a person has a senior moment, they’re likely to remember it. Remembering the moment is actually a good sign and often indicates that nothing more serious is going on. People with dementia often don’t realize they’re struggling to remember things. They may not even realize that it’s affecting their daily life. Not recognizing memory lapses is a sign that it could be more serious.
How can you prevent senior moments?
Even when senior moments are not a sign of dementia, they can still feel troublesome. The good news is that there are steps you can take to help prevent senior moments from happening, such as:
- Avoid multitasking, and do one thing at a time.
- Replay memories in your head that are important to you. This reinforces them in your mind. These may be memories that have sentimental value to you. They can also be memories about how to complete specific, multistep tasks.
- Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to always work from your memory. Use memory tools like to-do lists, notes, or alarms to remember things.
- Make sure to get enough sleep.
- Practice mindfulness to minimize stress and declutter your mind.
In addition to the above, regularly exercising your mind can help keep your brain healthy. Mentally stimulating activities, like doing crossword puzzles or reading a book, may help preserve your cognitive abilities.
The bottom line
As you age, your body and mind experience natural changes. And age-related memory changes are normal. Normal senior moments don’t occur too often, and they don’t interfere with your day-to-day life. But don’t hesitate to talk to your provider if you notice they are happening more often or if they feel new or unusual for you. Your provider can help you figure out if your “senior moments” are potentially a sign of something more serious.
Altschul, D. (2020). What are cognitive functions? Psychology Today.
Alzheimer’s Association. (2011). Is it Alzheimer’s or just signs of aging?
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