Our Aging Brains

(Originally posted Thursday, April 18th, 2013)

As the Jarhead and I get older, I’ve begun to think about age-related illnesses and conditions, and how they may affect us. Words like presbyopia and arthritis have already crept into our vocabulary, just as ibuprofen, antacids, and reading glasses have replaced the Midol, condoms, and tampons in my purse, the medicine cabinet, and the center consoles of the family vehicles. We talk in mostly joking tones about these changes and what other geriatric maladies may befall us, but personally I don’t find this trend the least bit humorous.

Two other topics that I find decidedly unfunny but which nevertheless feature prominently in our comedic exchanges are presbycusis—aka age related hearing loss—and cognitive decline. And with apologies to those who are currently affected by either of these conditions, I can’t help but wonder: If my beloved Jarhead were to develop dementia, how would I know?

I ask this, in part, because even before we started checking the 41 to 50 box on surveys, questionnaires, and the like, the Jarhead displayed a strong propensity for memory lapses. For example, he forgets where he puts things, forgets to do things, and forgets that he has already done things. He also forgets that he owns things, forgets he’s given or thrown them away, and—odder yet—forgets that he has already replaced them.

At times, he also forgets to say things. I’m not talking about things like apologizing when he offends or upsets me, or wishing me a pleasant birthday or anniversary. Happily, he is a pro at making amends and has plenty of high tech gadgets to remind him of key dates. Instead, he forgets to respond to comments and questions posed to him in the course of an ordinary day, such as, “Did you bring the dumpsters up from the curb?” In such situations he will walk right past me without a word believing he spoke his answer aloud when in fact he only heard it in his head. He has also been known to sit waiting for an answer from me to a question he never spoke except in his head. I won’t even know it’s happening until I notice him staring at me expectantly and am moved to ask, “What?”

Other times, he will give an answer that doesn’t fit the question, and I won’t know if his answer is off topic because he didn’t hear what I said, or if it’s because his brain took a wrong turn and refuses to stop and ask for directions. When this happens, I will have to ponder the possible reasons he is talking about tires when I asked him about apples, and try to determine whether he thought I said something that sounded like tires, or if the word apples made him think about Walmart (where we have bought apples) which reminded him of the auto center (where we have also happen to have bought tires.) Failing that, I’ll have no choice but to interrupt and politely ask, “What exactly do you think I said?”

The issue of whether I will know if and when the Jarhead’s brain stops firing on all cylinders is further complicated by the fact that I change my mind a lot and will, occasionally, forget having done so. Like when I asked him to bring up from the basement freezer a pack of bagels I had planned to have him put there but which I later decided to stash in the crisper in the fridge. All totaled, it took us fifteen minutes to find the bagels, and another fifteen to figure out what went wrong—and how.

Also contributing to the problem is that I sometimes say things I don’t mean. I’m not talking about calling names or flinging accusations (although I’ve done my share of both, nine times out of ten it is intentional) but about my tendency to speak words that are somehow related to or similar in sound to those I intend to say, but which are just different enough to confuse the recipient of my message when I say them. Like when I ask him to put something in the oven when I mean the dishwasher, or to bring me a pair of socks from my desk when I mean my dresser. In addition to supplanting words with terms that sound similar or have a similar purpose, shape, or function, I also have issues with mathematical terms which cause me to say thousands when I mean hundreds or tens of thousands; weeks when I mean months, years, or days; and minutes when I mean hours or seconds—and vice versa.

I don’t know if this is an age thing or not. I don’t recall it happening in my teens or twenties but that doesn’t prove anything. Which leads me to wonder: If I were to develop dementia, how would the Jarhead know?


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