Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 16, 2021

Where are my keys?

Most of us are a tad uncomfortable when contemplating our senior years. While some may be concerned about where it all ends, others focus on the changes we associate with age. Comedian Jay Leno commented on this latter aspect in a show I attended a few years ago. He said he remembered when he was young and could sleep all night on the sofa at a friend’s apartment, wake up in the morning, and feel fully refreshed. But now if he turns his head too quickly, something in his neck might hurt for the rest of the day.

Advertisers know people in their 20s and 30s are not the demographic watching TV. This results in many television ads aimed at us folks of a "certain age." Commercials tout products and services intended to keep our bones strong, treat cataract-ravaged eyes, moderate the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and relieve the heartbreak of psoriasis. They assure us that we need not fear the loss of our former active life style as relief is just a phone call away in the form of bladder-leakage-absorbing panty liners. These can be sent directly to our homes in unmarked boxes, thereby avoiding the pitying looks of local store cashiers.

Yet we mature types sometimes see problems where none exist. When we were 25 and lost our keys, we'd just start looking for them. When we mislay them now, we worry it is a sign that we are not just losing our keys, but our marbles as well.

Even some of the actual age-related changes may not be what they seem. When I was young, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas seemed like forever. Now, holidays seem to whiz by, creating a vague feeling of having nodded off somewhere along the way. While there is no question that the perception is real of time going more quickly as an adult than it did as a child, evidence is building it may have nothing to do with our feared slowing down.

Instead, it appears related to how our brain perceives time. It devotes more storage to big events than to smaller ones. When we are young, we store quite a bit because so many events are new and so seem important. But as we age, most things we do are repeats of what we have done before, i.e., the number of "big" events declines. This causes a smaller amount of memory to be devoted to more recent years.

The other half of this time-perception situation seems to be connected to how many unique memories we can riffle through associated to a span of time. With more items to pull from memory that were created in our youth, that time span "feels" longer. The reverse is also true. People who see an event - such as a car crash coming - are apt to store many "snapshots" of what unfolds. The retrieval of these many memories seems to make the play-back appear to take place in slow motion.

A similar effect comes into play in regard to faces. My folks often remarked that someone looked like this person or that person. To me, they just looked like themselves. But now I do the same thing my folks did.

Psychology professor Isabelle Boutet specializes in facial recognition. Her University of Ottawa, Canada research focuses on us seniors. She said there are two types of mistakes we make: not recognizing someone we know, and thinking someone we don't know is someone we're acquainted with. She added that older people are rarely afflicted with the former. But the latter is common and stems from the fact that by the time we're older, we’ve seen so many faces that virtually everyone we meet does indeed look like someone we've met before.

Some of our food preferences change with age as well. Neither husband Art nor I liked broccoli or cauliflower as kids, but we love them now. Many harmful things taste bitter and so our brain is hardwired at birth to avoid them. So it is normal for kids to not like foods that taste that way.

But humans unconsciously associate food tastes with experiences. Think about any food you ate right before becoming sick. Art recalls clearly the time he consumed a whole bag of red licorice and threw up. To this day, he won't touch it. Ditto with me for cookies with fig filling.

This also works in reverse. Foods served at Christmas, Thanksgiving or our birthday become associated with these special times, modifying our opinion of them.

So we develop a dislike for things connected to unpleasant events, while we particularly appreciate those associated with enjoyable times. These changes in a person's palate may be little more than the normal learning process playing itself out.

Our self image changes too as we age, modifying how we respond to situations. Art asked me what a woman had between her breasts when she was 60 that she never had when she was 20. Before I had a chance to react, he said, "Her belly button!"

Most women can relate, but my reaction to that joke reflects another change in me. At one time, I would have been inclined to turn a bit red from embarrassment, but not now. Instead, it prompted me to reflect on something Art's cousin Jeff mentioned a few weeks back. He said he noticed how he cares far less what others think of him now than when he was younger. By the time we reach retirement age, we have a pretty good idea of who we are and the opinions of others are just their opinions.

The point here is that some of the changes we see as we age are not a sign of any sort of decline, but just the effect of accumulated life experiences.

Now, if I could just find my car keys!

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