Does this ever happen to you? Lately I’ve noticed that I’m having difficulty retrieving words. Not always, but often enough to be aware of it. It happened just the other day, when I saw the word “ribald” in something I was reading. I know what the word means, but I couldn’t think of synonyms to define it. And then I think, “Damn, am I losing it? Is this how dementia starts?”
I write for a living, putting words together in a ways that are meant to inform, educate, motivate, explain. But sometimes at the end of a workday, I feel as if I’ve run out of words, used them all up. It’s an effort to carry on a conversation because I’m just worn out. My brain feels tired and doesn’t want to make the effort to think, respond, or string together words into coherent sentences. I want to just zone out in front of the television and be in receive mode, not engage in the give-and-take of conversing and pulling words out of my cache in order to make sense. But sometimes I wonder: is this end-of-day mental fatigue normal, or am I losing my edge?
Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I have that sensibility when I’m writing, but sometimes it seems as if my ability to retrieve the just-right word isn’t as keen as it used to be.
Then I remember an evening in my twenties, when I worked at the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs in Boston. I was working late, in the windowless bowels of City Hall, drafting a proclamation. It involved composing a series of whereas-es so the mayor could therefore proclaim it such-and-such day. I was agonizing over the wording—aware that this was a relatively meaningless exercise in the larger scheme of things—but I wanted it to be perfect. And when I came up with the just-right word, I just knew it.
So maybe my 64-year-old brain is working the same way it always has. I still try words out, stick them in a sentence, discard them, replace one with another, rework the sentence—until it clicks. Even if these days I find myself Googling synonyms (where I once grabbed my Roget’s thesaurus if I got stuck), I still recognize the just-right word when I see it. Whew.
Sometimes, in the midst of writing, I come up or back from wherever it is my brain goes, and for the tiniest moment I don’t know what day it is. It happened earlier this week; I thought it was Sunday when it was, in fact, Wednesday. It’s so damned disconcerting when it happens, like the earth has shifted slightly on its axis, but then I reorient and my world rights itself. And then I wonder: is this what it’s like to have dementia—to feel that sense of disorientation all the time? Or are you not aware that you’re disoriented?
Or is this what being in a flow state, “the zone,” feels like? You’re so totally immersed in something, so focused, that everything else simply falls away? I’ll opt to believe the latter.
I guess these ruminations reflect where I am in life—that the specter of dementia looms larger than ever, given my age. Any perceived slip triggers at least a momentary questioning of my mental faculties. To confound things, I’m a medical writer, so I tend to think I’ve got any number of maladies that I write about (and I did just finish an article about dementia). Occupational hazard, I guess.
On the plus side, my work is cerebral, which—according to some research—affords me some cognitive protection. It didn’t help my father-in-law, however, who was an editor at the Boston Globe, a voracious reader, and used to do the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle in ink. He was diagnosed with dementia at 80.
Oh, well. I can’t worry about it. It won’t change the outcome, whatever it may be. And stress is bad for memory and cognition.
So I’ll just keep on writing and ruminating. And Googling. And feeling grateful I can still figure out what day it is.
Also, I know that one of the questions you’re asked during a cognitive evaluation for dementia is if you know who’s president of the United States. Unfortunately, I’m painfully aware of who that is. So I think I’m doing just fine.
What do you think? Do you find yourself questioning your mental acuity and/or worrying about dementia? What cognitive changes have you noticed in yourself? What are you doing to keep yourself as mentally sharp as possible? While you’re thinking about it, here’s this week’s haiku:
Misplaced keys don’t faze
me; should I forget what they’re
called, then I’ll worry.