At 56, I’ve experienced the usual insidious decrepitude of aging, but this was something new. I tried to console myself with the thought that putting on two wristwatches is not so much forgetting as remembering twice. I failed.
Growing old, I’m realizing, is nothing if not a succession of sight gags: the cup of coffee in the refrigerator instead of the adjacent microwave, the mis-matched socks worn in public, the mysteriously vacant spot that should be occupied by car keys.
But it’s evident in the invisible places, too — the ever-evolving cotillion of aches in the body, the empty spaces from which a once-agile mind plucked the perfect word so effortlessly.
A friend recently told me that, in language, aging first manifests as an inability to access vowels.
“Rlly?” I said. “S, th vwls dsppr, nd w’r lft wth jst cnsnnts?”
“No, no,” she said. “Nouns, not vowels. Nouns are the first to disappear.”
Researchers refer to this inability to easily retrieve words as tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) phenomenon, but I’m pretty sure my entire tongue is involved. It’s not just that I can’t quickly retrieve the word for which I’m searching; when writing, I sometimes substitute completely different and inappropriate words without knowing I’m doing it. I don’t realize I’ve made an elephant until I proofread, and even then I sometimes miss anchovies.
This is upsetting, because it seriously erodes my ability to appear smart. So I’m going to compensate by quoting research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (J Cogn Neurosci 2010 Jul;22(7):1530-40), using lots of parentheses and providing a complex diagram of the brain, labeled in Latin.
According to the journal article (“Word retrieval failures in old age: the relationship between structure and function”), age-related TOT correlates with atrophy of the left insula, a region implicated in phonological production. Younger people are able to boost activity in this region when faced with a naming challenge, whereas the insuli of older people remain slouched on the couch, eating bon-bons.
Research suggests one sure way to avoid this experience: Die young, and I mean young: The human brain reaches its maximum size when we’re in our early twenties, and thereafter starts the long, slow slide toward senility.
If the early-death opportunity has passed you by and you are experiencing TOT and other memory lapses, help is available. Experts provide many useful strategies for desperately clinging to — uh, maintaining — whatever mental capacity the encroaching years have not yet stolen from you. (My favorite, from the American Psychological Association, is denial: “Don’t buy into ageist stereotypes about memory decline!”)
All for now. It’s time to go to work — just as soon as I’ve gotten another cup of coffee from the refrigerator.
But … where are those darn car keys?