How’s that brain doing?

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on April 28, 2017 # Health

Back in bad old days of paralysis (BA, or before antibiotics), there weren’t a lot of old people grousing about it because there weren’t a lot of old people with paralysis, period. Thanks to the miracles of medicine, there is now an ever-expanding horde of us seniors. As much as you may tire of us talking about aging, just remember – with an American turning 50 every seven seconds, you will soon be joining the conversation. In any case, you are probably surrounded by old people. If you like this, pass it on to Uncle Ned.

I recently came across an article in the UCLA newsletter, “Healthy Years” – don’t worry, you’ll be subscribing soon – called “Worried About “Senior Moments”?” That hoary cliché aside, the gist of the piece was about “dementia testing.” The “D” word woke me right up. Am I becoming imperceptibly demented? How do I know when I’ve turned the corner? Does paralysis have anything to do with it?

The line between just age-related mental slips and significant mental decline can be fuzzy, the article explains. Short term memory is one key. If you forget something, but remember it later, you’re normal. If you forget something and then forget you’ve forgotten it – like missing a doctor’s appointment because you don’t even remember making it -- well, maybe you should check in with an expert.

There are tests – tons of them, in fact – that can measure your mental acuity. Try one instead of scrolling Facebook. You’ll either feel completely together or not so much. As everyone who saw the movie about Alzheimer’s, “Still Alice,” knows, these tests can be a little scary. I, for one, couldn’t answer half the things Julianne Moore couldn’t answer.

A year or two back, I hit my head on concrete while getting out a swimming pool and after denying it for a while – “Oh, come on, there’s not even a bump…” – I developed a massive headache and headed to the ER. Yes, I had a “moderate” concussion, they said, and after a night in the hospital, my internist came in with one of these tests. The questions included:

  • Spell the word “world.”
  • Count back from 100 in sevens.
  • Who was the Vice-President before Joe Biden?
  • I did okay, so they let me go. These were questions from what is called the “Mini-Mental State Exam.” You might be feeling razor sharp until the examiner ups the ante by giving you, for instance, three, unrelated words – say, chair, grapefruit, mold – then asking you to repeat them ten minutes later.

    What does dementia have to do with paralysis? Everything and nothing. I have a neuroimmune disorder, transverse myelitis, and doctors at Johns Hopkins have discovered a definite link between TM and organic depression, i.e., depression caused by changes in brain structure and not from a psychological source. Maybe you have the same problem. And the association of depression and dementia?

    As one researcher told the New York Times, “We can’t say that late-life depression causes dementia, but we can say it likely contributes to it.”

    Most likely it’s the side effects of paralysis, and not the paralysis itself, that can lead you down the thorny path to forgetting your spouse’s name. A lot of people with paralysis, myself included, gravitate toward inertia. Use your brain and let the body just hang out. With me, half of it is just along for the ride anyway.

    There are ways to fend off dementia, but they demand that you do something. WebMD reports that older people who exercise three times a week develop Alzheimer’s a third less than couch potatoes. Why? Not just because they are more fit. The chances are, one researcher said, “people who exercise regularly “are more disciplined…eat a better diet or are more socially engaged.”

    Whether, as you age, you get dementia anyway – after 80, the odds are not in your favor -- you’re only opening the door and speeding up the process if you lay around by yourself in your darkened living room, binging on old episodes of “Game of Thrones.”

    Okay, what were those three items I mentioned a minute ago? Was one avocado? Are you sure?

    Note: there are memory/cognitive tests on line that are fun and perhaps instructional. Try the Harvard-run one, TestMyBrain.org.

    © 2017 Allen Rucker

    Purchase Allen's book:

    The Best Seat in the House:
    How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life