We have all experienced it. Jokes are often made about it. It is both humorous and embarrassing when it occurs. It is called “Senior Moments”. It is the focus of concern of us all, especially when we see the typical signs of aging.
In this brief article, I will share the about the mechanism which operates behind the scenes 0f our “senior moments” and its role in our daily life. I will also share some typical causes for our “forgetfulness” and the more concerning situations which may require some investigation through clinical evaluations.
What are “Senior Moments”
Senior moments occur when we initiate a routine task but at some point from where we begin, we lose the objective of our effort. We will find ourselves standing at our intended location with the all too common question, “Now what was I about to do? Frustrated, we journey back to where we started when we recall the very reason we why we had first moved.
I remember a comedy routine given by Bill Cosby when he shared how when we get older our memory sinks down to our behind. So after we forget why we got up from our chair, we would remember when we return to the chair and our bottom hits the seat.
Many of us who are in our midlife stage are taking care of a loved one who has been diagnosed with dementia. We see the turmoil they go through and We see them occasionally get up and wander as if ‘for no reason’. Then when we experience a similar situation, we tend to wonder if we are going to develop dementia as well.
But having lapses of memory is not by itself a prognostic indicator of developing dementia. Often, it really is just forgetfulness. It may be a concerning issue only if it is a frequent occurrence. More often than not, there are other contributors to our memory lapses at play.
Is it a problem?
The first step in addressing any issue of concern is to first ask, “is this a problem?”. What we need to do is clarify how it impacts our life. What is the normal routine and habit of your loved one’s life? What have they been able to perform in the past three months? How has it changed? The real focus of our question is, “does this new development interfere with their baseline functioning quality of life? If they normally ate and no longer eat, it would be defined as a problem. If they typically took strolls around the yard to check the lawn, then we find them wandering around the lawn that would not be considered a problem.
So, let us look at the episode of forgetfulness under the same lense. When you consider their baseline function, If the forgetful episodes are frequent enough to disrupt their life routine, then forgetfulness for them would be considered a problem.
Common players in Forgetfulness
In his article, “7 Common Causes of Forgetfulness “, Daniel Pendick provides some common factors that may be the culprit for forgetfulness.
Lack of Sleep
The lack of sleep is one of the less regarded but important cause of forgetfulness.
Medications often impair our memory
Tranquilizers, antidepressants, some blood pressure drugs, and other medications can impair our memory skills.
The thyroid is like the idle engine of the whole body. When it is set too low, the mind is sluggish and can not process information effectively. An idle set to high produces anxiety, which can also impair clear thinking.
Alcohol or recreational drugs have a dramatic effect on the brain and memory retrieval.
Anxiety, Depression and feeling stressed impair memory function.
When other issues have been ruled out, let us consider what may go awry with the running dialogue of the brain. When this gets disrupted, we “lose our train of thought” or even in worst cases, there is a lack of communication between both sides of the brain. This is what is typically seen when a loved one with dementia seems goal-directed and wanders off, but they are unable to provide any reason for their actions.
Not many people consider how the brain is made up of two separate halves, known as hemispheres. The right and left hemispheres communicate with each other through a narrow bridge of nerve fibers, known as the corpus callosum.
In studies where a patient required a surgical disconnection of this bridgework, it is evident that each hemisphere operates separately and individually when on their own. However together they work toward a cooperative effort to have both reason and purpose in our tasks. Some studies report that one of the earliest signs of pending dementia is compromised communication between both hemispheres through degeneration of the bridgework. The balance of dialogue is then disrupted and signals early pathology. There is even a published article on how to determine early signs of dementia from using peanut butter.
The Peanut Butter Study – Imbalanced Communication
In the Article, “Peanut-butter-test-predicts-Alzheimer’s” , peanut butter was used to test the communication between both hemispheres. When the subject could identify the smell of peanut butter from one nostril and not the other, it was considered an indication that there was a problem in the hemisphere communications.
Of those participants, only those with a confirmed diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s had trouble smelling the peanut butter. Additionally, those patients also had a harder time smelling the peanut butter with their left nostril. Generally, the right nostril was able to smell the peanut butter 10 centimeters farther away than the left nostril. The difference in smell between left and right nostril in unique to the disease. Sense of smell is often the first sense to go in cognitive decline, even before memory loss, which is why this could be an effective tool in the fight against Alzheimer’s.
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota found that seniors who had the worst test scores on a smell test were 2.2 times more likely to show signs of mild cognitive decline. Additionally, if participants were already exhibiting memory problems and obtained low smell test scores, they were more likely to progress to Alzheimer’s.
Sperry elaborates on how the sense of smell (olfaction) is unique to other senses and why it can help uncover the right brain to left brain dialog.
Sperry delivered visual stimuli to a single visual field of the subject. He discovered that, with the exception of olfactory stimuli, the hemispheres of the brain receive sensory stimuli and exercise motor control contralaterally. Thus, when a word or picture of an object was flashed to the right eye, the patient was able to name the object or read the word. However, when a picture of an object was flashed to the left eye, the patient could not name it and in fact would deny seeing the object. Simultaneously, the left hand could point to the object or pick it out of a group of concealed objects . Thus, if a strong smell such as garlic or ammonia were presented to the right nostril, whose olfactory receptors connect directly to the right hemisphere, the patient would grimace with disgust while verbally denying that she smelled anything. However, her left hand could point to the object the right nostril had smelled, as the patient continued to say she smelled nothing .
Each Olfactory path feeds separately in each hemisphere
The Partner Unspoken
Take a look at this video from House, MD.
Did you notice when Dr. House gave the information on the left visual field to “stand up” and the patient rose to his feet? When asked “why he stood?”, he hesitated and mentioned that he was going to retrieve a sweater because he was feeling cold. In other words, his right hemisphere told him to stand and his left hemisphere had to find a reason to explain why he was standing, so he created an explanation that would fit the situation.
Now let us consider the degeneration of communication between the brain that happens in dementia. If their brain is unable to share communication for purposeful movement, doesn’t make sense why they may be wandering around the house without being able to explain why they are doing it?
This may even explain why your loved one feels frustrated when you ask them why they are wandering around when they cannot even explain the reason to themselves.
I hope you find this writing helpful.
Pendick, Daniel. “7 Common Causes of Forgetfulness – Harvard Health Blog.” www.health.harvard.edu, 22 Feb. 2013, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/7-common-causes-of-forgetfulness-201302225923. Accessed 16 Sept. 2019.
“Can’t Smell Peanut Butter? Alzheimer’s May Be the Culprit.” www.alzheimers.net, 20 Jan. 2016, https://www.alzheimers.net/2014-09-19/peanut-butter-test-predicts-alzheimers/. Accessed 16 Sept. 2019.
Serendip. “Of a Divided Mind: Human Responses to the Human Split Brain.” serendipstudio.org, Oct. 1993, https://serendipstudio.org/bb/neuro/neuro02/web2/hhochman.html. Accessed 16 Sept. 2019.
House MD TV, Split Brain