Friday, December 18, 2009

Memory Is A Crazy Woman...

Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food. ~Austin O'Malley

Yesterday, I took my housemate to the Memory Clinic. She is being evaluated for Alzheimer's. Three different people with different skill sets gave her a lot of tests and interviewed me. There was a physician (a neurologist), a memory specialist and a social worker. The entire process took three hours. It was very thorough and I trust that she will get a solid diagnosis and a treatment plan. We won't know the outcome until next month.

This got me to thinking about memory and has resulted in several hours of Internet searches, reading everything from anecdotes to articles from neurology journals. Lots of it is over my head but still useful for a general understanding. Memory is a funny thing, something most of us lose at particular times and other events remain cemented in the forefront of our recollection, almost as though they are tattooed on our frontal lobes.

Personally, I've always had a sketchy and fluid short-term memory. It is a large dumping ground. Facts, figures, events and snippets of information, storylines of books that have impressed me, quotes, all sorts of things gather there and crop up when I want or need them. Sometimes they've gone into the ether where they can never be retrieved again. It's more like a subtle smell or a fragment of a song lyric that can't quite come to the surface.

Most of the time, I don't remember when I learned those things or how I gathered that information. It doesn't matter. Now that I'm retired, I often don't know the date or the day of the week. It simply doesn't matter.

At what point it becomes significant is what interests me. Many of the questions asked of us yesterday were obvious attempts to get a grasp on her orientation to time and place. They had her draw a few things and tested her verbal skills and understanding. She did her best and I could see her struggling.

But at what point is it pathological and when is it simply a function she doesn't need in her day-to-day life? Is it really that important that she know the day of the week or when something happened?

I came away from the experience yesterday knowing I want to protect my memory. I don't expect it to store everything for me like a super-computer. I don't expect to be able to call up every snippet of information I've ever learned without having to look it up again. (Calendars and books are good for that. They function as my memory and work perfectly well.)

As I age (and that's closer than further away), I want to make sure my mind and brain are active. It's important to not get caught up in pettiness and drama, to make sure that our capacity for memory is respected, protected and used well.

That means making a conscious effort to keep those neurons firing. I was discussing all of this with a friend last night and we both, of a similar age - my being a few years older - decided to learn Spanish. It is a good way to stimulate our brains and exercise our memories.

One of the people at the clinic yesterday, it might have been the social worker, said that people who stay active and involved in their environments, learn new things, stay socially active and interactive, are less likely to develop dementia in old age.

I'm in. This needs to be an effort that is just as conscious as eating well and exercising. Personally, I can't imagine anything worse than getting old and losing my cognitive ability. As has been said by many others thousands of times, when that happens, just shoot me.

Most of the people who read this are too young for this to be an issue - but still something worthy of keeping in mind. Remember. :)



Leann said...

This is something that is always at the forefront of my mind. Trying to keep busy, stay active, doing crossword puzzles, or puzzle games making my mind trigger appropriately from one thing to another.

I can only imagine the wake up call that appt was to you yesterday. The things I learn when I accompany my mother on her many physician appts is always enlightening and at times frightening.

Z said...

I agree that the day of the week doesn't matter, but maybe her thought processes as she tries to work it out give clues.

I heard on the radio of someone with suspected Alzheimer's being asked to draw a clock face with a given time on it, and he struggled. It was fiction, but a programme that researches its facts. If you lose knowledge of something you've been able to do without thinking, that's quite disturbing.

Unknown said...

This memory stuff is something i struggle with.
The jarring of my brain from surgery, the removal of a long term tumor, the subsequent swelling in my head on the over reduction of fluids caused a significant shock to my system.
i am still surprised by the things I do remember and frightened by the things I do not.
It does make me appreciate the moment much, much more.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I must comment about your remark that most of those reading this post are too young for Alzheimer's to be an issue because my husband, who is considerably younger than I, was diagnosed with it about 5 years ago. He has actually had it for several years longer but because of his extreme youth, the doctors insisted his memory problems were "just stress." As the Baby Boomers age, this ailment is becoming epidemic, and it is truly heart breaking.

My husband was always active, both physically and mentally, and got it anyway. All we can really do is give prevention our best shot and hope for the best.

Olivia said...

How precious our minds are and how fragile as well. As I read your post and the comments I found myself thinking about head injuries and how easily several falls I've had and/or accidents could have easily resulted in traumatic injury (but never did). I am so grateful for my mind as long as I have it.

I think that learning Spanish with your friend is a FANtastic idea :)

xo, O

painted maypole said...

Never too young to learn thY lesson, and starting patterns that will keep your brain (and body!) healthy in the Yeats to come.

Mauigirl said...

This is something I worry about every time I can't think of a word or forget something. I also worry about my husband, whose mother and grandmother had Alzheimer's.

Thanks for reminding me that there are things we can do to help keep our brains active.

Anvilcloud said...

I'm no too young, and it's scary. Like you, I try to keep my noggin active. However, and most unfortunately, I do have the feeling that our best efforts are like trying to cross the ocean in a rowboat.

secret agent woman said...

I attended a conference on Alzheimer's and there was a case presentation of a boy who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and died with it at 18. 18! So I will second Heart's comment that it is not just an aging issue.

Staying mentally active isn't a definite preventive, but it does improve your odds.

Billie Greenwood said...

I wonder when we'll discover some environmental factor that is contributing to the Alzheimers phenomenon. I'm sorry for your housemate's plight. Spanish is a good idea!

MARY G said...

At 67, it certainly matters to me! I do as much as I can to stay fit mentally.
I have lost a mother and two aunts to Alzheimer's type dementia, and while this does not make me an expert, it has given me some experience.
Losing track of when you are is a symptom; not forgetting the date, which we all do, but being unable to differentiate between 3:00 am and 3:00 pm. Losing the ability to do a familiar task is another; my mother lost the ability to figure out what clothes were appropriate - she would use her thermal underwear top for a sweater, for example.
Watching these dear people gradually become frightened children has made me a lot less afraid of dying from a physical illness that spares my mind.
Good luck with your friend - there are a lot more treatments around these days.