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 luminosity.com. 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.