Bewildered by age’s tireless march

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
Do not go gentle into that brain fog; rage, rage against the dying of your hippocampus, writes Lisa Scott.

Lisa Scott
Lisa Scott
I was searching through a jewellery box, looking for an earring sleeper when I found them: little bone-white lumps of enamel - the serial killer podcasts I listen to make me paranoid, so initially I freaked out, thought I might be accidentally murdering people - but they were my daughter’s teeth, relics from my days as the Tooth Fairy. Such a gruesome, pagan thing to do, sneaking into the room of a sleeping child and swiping their molars. I’d forgotten they were there, but forgetting stuff is de rigueur at the moment. I have more "to do" lists than the Guy Pearce character in Memento suffering from anterograde amnesia who uses notes and tattoos to help his recall.

Not only is my short-term memory awful, so is my short-term memory.

I start something, get distracted and completely forget what I’m doing. I put things in weird places. I’ll be talking to someone and their name will suddenly be erased from my mind’s ledger. It’s reached to the point where I leave the house only to go back to check I haven’t left the oven on. Which is ridiculous because it’s not like cooking and me are a team.

Sound familiar? These brain farts happen to everyone, but because I’m a dreadful hypochondriac with a history of symptom-Googling, I immediately self-diagnosed with early onset dementia, or a brain tumour, when the truth is maybe my working memory is overloaded.

Short-term memory storage, also known as working memory, is a limited resource.

"Working memory is your ability to keep information available for short bits of time," says University of Florida College of Medicine associate professor and clinical neuropsychologist Catherine Price, Ph.D.

Even though working memory is associated with activity in multiple spots of your brain, it has its breaking points, she says.

Your working memory can hold only so much information at once, so if you want to add something new, something else will have to go. Learn how to rig a safety for a multi-pitch climb, and you’ll have to jettison parallel parking. Your brain’s lack of filing space is a blessing really, there’s no room for rumination or regret, the limited storage allows for nothing but the here and now and skills associated. I hardly need my high school French at the moment, or my first husband’s name. I do need my Eftpos PIN though.

However, maybe it feels like you’re losing names of people, objects, and places at a higher frequency than you did a few years ago, and walking into the kitchen without knowing the reason why a little more? Well cut yourself some slack. A certain level of memory wear and tear is to be expected as we age, and quite frankly it’s nothing compared to what’s happening to your face. The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, deteriorates over time. Hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth (the quarks that spark) also decline with age. On the upside, you give less farks.

There are things you can do, though, so it’s not all dribbling and shuffling about just yet.

Experts suggest that you play games you are not already familiar with that involve strategy, such as chess or bridge, and word games such as Scrabble (I’ve taken up frisbee. I can’t throw for love or money, but I catch like an elderly Labrador, mostly with my forehead). Try crosswords and other word puzzles, or number puzzles such as Sudoku. I do the crossword every Sunday and every time I get a word right, I think smugly, "Ha! Take that, encroaching bewilderment."

Read newspapers, magazines, and books that challenge you. Get in the habit of learning new things: games, recipes, driving routes, a musical instrument, a foreign language. Or the language of New Zealand, which I’m currently learning: Kei hea? Is where? Ko wai koe? Who are you? ... the more interested and engaged your brain, the more likely you’ll be to continue learning and the greater the benefits you’ll experience.

Do not go gentle into that brain fog; rage, rage against the dying of your hippocampus. Or words to that effect penned by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in his rapturous ode to the unassailable tenacity of the human spirit - written not long before he drank himself into a coma and spectacularly failed to live up to his own advice.

Old age should burn and rave at close of day. In a good way, obviously, not just because you’ve left the oven on and the house has gone up like a rocket.



I take a sleeping pill and wake it up.

Dinna fesh. There's nowt wrong with your wordsmithing.

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