Friday, February 28, 2014

“Senior Moments” Unrelated to Dementia, University of Virginia Study Shows

Barbara Penn, 78, retired from social services for the County of San Diego, takes three aqua-exercise classes weekly at the MissionValley YMCA. Barbara is a friendly lady who talks to everyone she meets, and she knows a lot of people. One day, while at the class, a woman with whom she had worked waved to her, “Hi, Barbara,” the lady said cheerfully. Barbara smiled and waved back, but then she thought, “What is that woman’s name? I just can’t think of it!”

Rather than embarrass herself, Barbara discreetly asked another class member, “What is the name of that woman in the pink bathing suit?” The other class member obliged and Barbara felt much better.

What happened to Barbara−often known as a “senior moment”− is fairly common. Although frustrating, such scenarios are, fortunately, not related to dementia, according to a recent University of Virginia study.

From the study:

Anecdotal evidence has suggested that tip-of-the-tongue experiences occur more frequently as people get older, but the relationship between these cognitive stumbles and actual memory problems remains unclear, according to University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Salthouse, the lead researcher.

“We wondered whether these self-reports are valid and, if they are, do they truly indicate age-related failures of the type of memory used in the diagnosis of dementia?,” he said.

To find out, Salthouse and University of Virginia undergraduate researcher Arielle Mandell, who was working on her senior thesis, were able to elicit tip-of-the-tongue moments in the laboratory by asking more than 700 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 99, to give the names of famous places, common nouns or famous people based on brief descriptions or pictures.

Throughout the study, participants indicated which answers they knew, which they did not and which made them have a “tip-of-the-tongue experience,” in which they felt they knew the answer, but could not recall it specifically.

Overall, older participants experienced more of these frustrating moments than did their younger counterparts, confirming previous self-report data. But after the researchers accounted for various factors, including participants’ general knowledge, they found no association between frequency of tip-of-the-tongue moments and participants’ performance on the types of memory tests often used in the detection of dementia.

Since her retirement, Barbara Penn has kept her mind active with meaningful volunteer work. For eight years, she served on the City of San Diego’s Citizens Review Board. “We worked in teams of three to review investigations for clarity and other issues,” she recalled. “Then, we would present our findings to the whole board for possible corrective action. Working on this panel was stimulating and interesting.”

As for her occasional memory blips, Barbara has adopted a healthy philosophy. “Is it so bad if you forget the name of a movie or a celebrity?” she asks with a grin. “It’s no big deal. You can just look it up on the Internet.”


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