The Secret Word Is Banana

I flunked the short-term memory test today at the doctor’s office. “Here are three words: banana, sunrise, chair,” said the nurse. “What are the three words?” “Banana, sunrise, chair,” I repeated proudly. Many questions and unrelated conversations later, she handed me a piece of paper. “Write those three words I gave you earlier,” she said. All I could remember was banana, probably because I’d had nothing to eat, it being lab tests that required fasting. “Hey,” I protested, I thought I no longer needed those words so I sloughed them off. That’s what we old people do.”

Another new wrinkle (no pun intended) in the aging process is that one’s annual physical now includes psychological questioning to determine whether the person is depressed, suicidal, drinking too much, losing sleep and a lot of other things including becoming more forgetful.

For one of today’s tests, the nurse asked me to draw the face of a clock and to indicate the time of 11:10. I was proud of the fact that I started with the 12, 3, 6 and 9 and then filled in the other numbers. Shows I recognize spacial distances, I thought. When I got home I happened to glance at a clock. Oh, my gosh, I’d mixed up the hands, showing the time as 1:55. Sure hope she remembers my mentioning I am left-handed. We left-handers frequently get things backwards.

I don’t mean to make light of these kinds of tests. We are all terrified of developing dementia or Alzheimers, its most common form, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease “is not a normal part of aging, although the greatest known risk factor is increasing age, and the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older.” But, the Association’s literature continues, “up to five percent of people with the disease have early onset Alzheimer’s which often appears when someone is in their 40s or 50s.”

So what to do? A person I know gives himself daily mental exercises through Others play Words with Friends online or do crosswords and word puzzles. My hope lies with two daily newspapers and a bunch of magazines, along with constant book-reading. It is scary to imagine what it must be like to be aware of your mind slowly fading away.

I joked a lot during today’s testing and made the nurse laugh several times. Next time I’ll take it more seriously. The joking older people do about memory loss is akin to whistling past the graveyard. Which is another thing we’re good at.

6 comments on “The Secret Word Is Banana

  1. Roger Keyser says:

    I can so empathize with that shock of seeing the clock hands reversed. Whenever I find errors in my previous work, I wonder, “Am I losing it?” But being a techno-nerd, I depend upon my daily dose of training to keep records of my progress. Now that I have been at it for over a year, the graphs of speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving have flattened out after that steady (heady) climb of the first few months. Yes, I see that I am fallible, but I am comforted that I’ll have early warning of my decline. And “Use it or lose it” is still my mantra.

    Your voracious reading and writing regimen is admirable. Please keep at it — we love your blog.

  2. dementedgirl says:

    Hi Patricia,

    Fellow dementia blogger here (but from a caregiver’s perspective – and very frequently not all too charitably either, before you decide to visit…).

    I do question the validity of these tests – based on the experiences we have had with MIL’s various six-monthly tests.

    Either they don’t capture the true extent of the decline that we have witnessed over the weeks and months, or they do and can’t do anything of the back of them. You might like the below!

    DG x

    • patnieder says:

      Hi DG. Thanks for the comment. As for the validity of those tests, I suspected as much, which is probably why I gave them such short shrift — and couldn’t even keep them in mind for a few minutes. I liked the memory test poem above and am sure the doctor’s words are spot on. The caregiver role is a tough one, but it looks like you’ve found a creative way to deal with it. Keep it up!

  3. Chris says:

    Hi Patricia,

    I’m glad you haven’t taken the test too seriously. If those were the only two questions asked then it sounds like you were given the Mini-Cog. In that case, the nurse should have warned you that she will ask you to repeat the words. As for drawing the clock at 11:55 – that is the most common mistake I see when I administer a clock drawing test. It is important to know that these tests are by no means diagnostic of any problem; they are simply screens to discover whether further investigation is warranted. I find too often that these tests aren’t given the context/explanation that is required to make the patient feel comfortable.

    If you are worried about your memory/cognition the best thing you can do for it is to exercise! Physical exercise has repeatedly been shown to prevent/slow cognitive decline. In contrast, the worthiness of brain training games/activities is still a matter of debate (in respect to preventing overall cognitive decline). Brain train games, like Lumosity, help you become better at specific tasks but whether this generalizes, to say, helping you find your car keys, is not known.

    I’m curious, almost a year later now, if you have noticed any memory or thinking problems compared to a year or two ago? The test is repeated yearly in an attempt to track these changes but again, it needs to be taken in context of what you are experiencing.


    • patnieder says:

      Hi Chris. Thanks for your comment and apparently knowledgeable input. I have not had the same test administered, although just this week the same doctor asked me a series of questions obviously designed to check on whether I was depressed or suicidal. I treated them with the same lack of seriousness I gave the earlier ones and answered “no” to everything. But when the doctor left the room to order a pneumonia shot, I thought she was finished with me, and I left. Today when I returned to the office for the shot, I told the nurse that instead of a test for depression, the doctor probably should have tested me for “dippy.”

      I know I am fortunate (so far) to be able to make light of these things. But as I mentioned before, all of us past a certain age look at people we know who are suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s and issue silent prayers for our own future health.

      Thanks for reading — even something almost a year old.

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