I stand in front of the gym locker and stare at my combination lock. Let’s see… Is it 6-29-34? Or maybe 29-6-34? It can’t be 34-29-6: combo locks are always high/low/high. I know the three numbers involved. I recall the basic algorithm of a padlock. But what order? I have no clue. My gym lock is over twenty years old; I’ve unlocked its combination at least a thousand times. But today, the order of numbers required to open the lock eludes me.
Thus is the world this sixty-seven-year-old man inhabits. Capable in many ways, certainly not feeble, nor dementiaed. Yet every so often the synapses in my brain simply refuse to fire. And so I stand, towel wrapped, in the locker room, baffled by a task I performed admirably yesterday, and will likely manipulate well tomorrow.
Or perchance I’m having a conversation and a simple image—say ‘envelope’—floats in my mind, but the actual word refuses to escape my lips.
Or I come upon someone. I know I know and their name…darn it, what is their name?
Slip sliding away is not all that awful. Sometimes, lost in a moment of dysfunction, I feel a release, a head-lightening, as if I’m unburdening my noggin’s accumulated detritus. And the function always returns—at least it has so far—usually within a few seconds. Still, in a world of time measured in nanos, a few untethered seconds feels awfully long. But I do not despair. For when the time finally arrives when my mind vacations for minutes, hours, and eventually eternity; there’ll be a lengthy digital trail of its demise.
I am a sucker for data and measures. I guinea pig myself for any research study that doesn’t require shots or pills. Every Survey Monkey that climbs into my Inbox gets filled out with relish. Several years ago, I was invited to participate in two different, long-term studies about aging brains.
I joined Brain Health Registry, out of UCSF, in 2014. Every year, they send me tests that measure my cognitive ability, and surveys that track my own dimming perceptions.
I also participate in the APT (Alzheimer’s Prevention Treatment) Webstudy, a cognitive assessment research tool that identifies individuals at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease with the goal of providing them the opportunity to participate in clinical trials aimed at preventing dementia. I have no reason to believe I am at higher risk for Alzheimer’s than the next geezer, but I rather enjoy doing the cognate tests that arrive every three months, and timed reflex exercises that address such world-critical questions as: Have you seen this card before? Is the card red or black? Is the card the same as the previous card? The tests also come with a slew of questionnaires that usually make me feel good about myself. Yes, I have social interactions with others; I can follow the plot of a movie; I can find my bicycle in a parking lot. No, I am not a hoarder.
I hope that that data my brain waves contribute to science are useful, and I encourage others to join these long-term studies.
For the last eight years, my markers have been pretty consistent. I’ve charted a solid baseline. But as my inability to find the right word, remember a name, and release my gym locker become more common, my cognate scores and self-assessment are beginning to slip. That’s fine by me, as I have no desire to live forever. I rather hope that my mind and my body dwindle in accord; but over that I have no control. Yet I’m glad that, even as I may not remember it, I’ll leave a data trail that tracks how one particular human slipped away.
In the meantime, I am keen on coping mechanisms. A few years ago, I wrote the combination of my gym locker on a sticker affixed to the back of the padlock. Not very secure, but what thief goes around peeking the backside of gym locks? There it was, in clear order. 34-6-29. I spun the dial, the door swung open, and my street clothes appeared.