As a social gerontologist, community educator, and writer, I am passionate about explaining how language affects –– in good or bad ways –– our perceptions of aging, and vice versa. Three particular phrases raise my hackles.
“Successful aging” is often used to depict the process of getting older as solely an individual’s responsibility rather than to also acknowledge powerful socioeconomic factors that affect a person’s ability to survive and thrive throughout life.
“Silver tsunami” is a phrase that mischaracterizes the arrival into older adulthood of America’s Baby Boom generation as a sudden and catastrophic force that will wipe out national productivity as well as entitlement program funds, without taking into account the potentially vast contributions elders can and do make in our society.
These two terms are regularly employed by the media when covering aging issues. But we hear the third term –– “senior moment” –– all the time, used by practically everyone from youth to the oldest old among us. The phrase is so pervasive that it has taken on a kind of scientific validity, as if the act of forgetting familiar information is limited to the behavior of older people. It’s not.
Here’s the reality about senior moments: They happen to all adults decades before they reach elderhood. According to University of Virginia psychology professor Dr. Timothy A. Salthouse, “some aspects of age-related cognitive decline begin in healthy educated adults when they are in their 20s and 30s.” Within five years after a cognitive peak around age 22, we begin to experience a gradual decline in the speed at which our brains work, as well as our ability to make quick comparisons, to think abstractly, to remember unrelated pieces of information, and to perceive patterns and relationships. And by our late 30s, problems with our memory become more apparent to us.
In short, senior moments belong to us all. Or as Ashton Applewhite eloquently states in her ground-breaking book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, “I used to think that those [‘senior moments’] quips were self-deprecatingly cute, until it dawned on me that when I lost the car keys in high school, I didn’t call it a ‘junior moment.’”
So instead of unrealistically attributing senior moments only to the elder experience, I’d like to offer a refreshing (and more accurate) meme for older brain activity: the “Sully moment.”
Enter famed airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, hero of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” who made a successful 2009 emergency landing in New York’s Hudson River of a U.S. Airways plane carrying 155 passengers. The inspiring story of his accomplishment can actually be explained by a brain phenomenon known as bihemispheric processing.
This skill fully develops around age 50, when the corpus callosum –– a bridge of tissue connecting our left and right hemispheres –– reaches its maximum maturity of approximately 200 million to 250 million nerve fibers. At this point, our brain reaches a state that geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen has described as shifting from two-wheel drive to “all-wheel drive.” Evidence of this shift is a greater ability to approach problem-solving from many different perspectives and to detect more subtle differences in circumstances and viewpoints.
Just catch Sully’s 2009 60 Minutes interview with Katie Couric, and you’ll hear an account of all-wheel drive in action as he ticked off in succession the various factors he had to consider and computations he had to make within seconds. “I was sure I could do it,” he said. “I think in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment.”
As he also told Couric, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
All of this is not to say that younger adults can’t process information bihemispherically. Of course they can. It’s just that they get better at it as they get older. Like much of life, we experience many things as tradeoffs. Sure, we may have more tip-of-the-tongue brain stutters, and our reaction times may get slower. On the other hand, as Salthouse has noted, our vocabulary increases and we accumulate and retain more general knowledge at least until we reach age 60. And older adults with healthy brains continue to integrate that knowledge as they apply their skills throughout their lives. Overall, when you think about it, it’s not a bad deal.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll happily trade a “senior moment” for a “Sully moment” anytime.