How to Tell When a “Senior Moment” Might Be Something More

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Most senior moments are no cause for concern. But with the continuum of cognitive impairment ranging from normal age-related cognitive decline to Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) to a variety of more severe dementias, including Alzheimer’s, how is one to know?

Almost everyone in late middle age or older has had one. Yes, I’m talking about those little episodes many describe with the non-clinical term “senior moment.” Episodes of forgetfulness can come in various forms, like going blank on the password for the computer you’ve logged into hundreds of times before, putting the wrong PIN into the card swipe keypad at the grocery store, suddenly being unable to come up with the right words for what you want to say, or opening the door to a closet only to forget what you’ve come to look for. And most of the time, such episodes are no cause for worry and provide us an opportunity to joke and laugh about some of the seemingly inevitable consequences of growing older.

Most senior moments are no cause for concern. And there are many environmental factors, behavioral habits, and other circumstances that can influence how frequently and intensely they occur. (Some factors include sleep deprivation and irregular sleeping habits, extreme low-carbohydrate dieting, fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression.) But it’s also unfortunately all too common that they are merely brushed off as normal when in fact they actually could be the first subtle signs of an emerging cognitive dysfunction or dementia.

The big question is how one goes about differentiating between a simple, relatively benign senior moment and a more serious problem in the early stages of development. Research is telling us that the processes thought to be responsible for the development of the most common form of dementia — Alzheimer’s Disease — are already underway several years before the first clear signs emerge or the most common symptoms are reported. And both research and clinical observations over the past 20 years indicate that there is actually a continuum of cognitive impairment ranging from normal age-related cognitive decline to Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) to a variety of more severe dementias, including Alzheimer’s. So how is one to know whether the memory problems with which they might be struggling from time to time are nothing to worry about or something that needs to be given a more serious look?

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One of the main ways to tell whether memory lapses are more than annoyances is the degree to which they might be disrupting daily life. When an otherwise healthy person experiences a momentary problem recalling information or placing a name or a face, it rarely causes more than a moment’s confusion and possibly a bit of frustration. But over-relying on various memory aides, requesting or providing the same information over and over again, forgetting the ingredients to commonly prepared foods, repeated problems balancing and using the checkbook, having frequent problems with written and verbal communication, or making poor and out-of-character decisions and judgments are more than likely the signs of something else. And because the person having the difficulty is usually the last to recognize the impact it might be having, it’s important to get the more objective observations of others and to bring any such problems to the attention of a medical professional.

These days, some simple screening techniques, such as specially-tailored mental status exams and simple recognition and problem-solving tasks, can help a physician or duly trained mental health professional determine whether more extensive evaluation is warranted. And the good news is that even if there’s evidence of MCI or the early stages of a more significant dementia, a more normal life can often be restored because many of the medications and combinations of medicines available for treatment are at the peak of their effectiveness in the earlier stages.

So take a moment to reflect on those “senior moments” you might have been experiencing lately, especially if they’ve been occurring more frequently. Ask your friends and loved ones if they have noticed changes in your usual ability to deal with the tasks of daily living or changes in your personality, mood, judgment and decision-making. Then, see a health care professional for evaluation and possible treatment. You’ll be very glad you did.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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