Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Fear of Fading: Can We Maintain Our Edge during the Aging Process?

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Fear of Fading: Can We Maintain Our Edge during the Aging Process?

Article excerpt

BOOKMARKS By Richard Handler

Fear of Fading Can we maintain our edge during the aging process?

Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife By Cathryn Jakobson Ramin HarperCollins Publishers. 311 pp. ISBN: 0-060-59869-7

Just before I sat down to bang out this review, I met a friend for coffee at a neighborhood cafZ. As we left, she pointed out that I'd forgotten to take my bag and hat, which were tucked on the ledge under the window. The day before, I'd forgotten the same bag at a brunch. My wife had to turn the car around for me to run into the house and fetch it.

That's the small stuff. Earlier in the summer, I returned from a bus trip from Buffalo to Toronto. In my living room, I opened my trusty glasses case and discovered that my reading glasses weren't there. I couldn't remember what I'd done with them. Where could I have dropped them? Small stuff still, you think. But the reading glasses were prescriptions, replete with costly no-glare and no-scratch coatings. Losing these glasses really bothered me. Damn, I thought, cursing myself and the fickle gods of memory!

Who hasn't got similar stories? How many things have you lost? Do you worry about fading memory--or whether these "senior moments" are the start of some horrible dementia or Alzheimer's? It's all a part of midlife decline, a time of life that could begin in your forties or later--or earlier!

This is the situation Cathryn Jakobson Ramin finds herself in, like many of us. She's an ambitious, busy freelance writer, who lives in northern California with her husband and two kids, whom she helps with homework and a thousand other tasks. She attends book club soirees and social gatherings as she juggles work assignments. On the face of it, she's your average supermom. Since she's cagey about her age, it takes nearly a hundred pages to find out she's 52.

But Ramin feels she has terrible cognitive deficits. In her forties, she started to notice she had problems. She felt "vague and foggy." She'd couldn't finish a page of a book before she'd forgotten what she'd read. "Words, my stock-in-trade as a writer, had started to play hide-and-seek," she writes. Thoughts raced into her mind, and then vanished before she'd had a chance to record them. Not only couldn't she remember names (a common enough problem): she couldn't remember faces, so she couldn't remember if she'd ever met somebody who was shaking her hand at a party. She felt "foreign" to herself and others.

She wasn't just worried about slowing down, which, as we learn, we all begin to do in our twenties. She was terrified about losing her edge. She was heavily invested in being a "quick and smart mistress of my good brain and sardonic tongue." Her wit and verve were not only central to her ability to earn money as a freelancer, but a big part of her identity.

Ramin is clever enough not simply to worry about her deficits: she uses them as the topic of her first book, Carved in Sand. Her cognitive rehab becomes her story. Luckily, she's plucky and works like hell, and has researchers and editors from a big publishing house to back her up, so her memory issues don't get in the way.

For two years, she talks to 200 people and applies herself, granted in a somewhat frenzied manner, to 10 "interventions" purported to help the retention of brain power. This is a "road book," in which the voyage of discovery is her own mind. She doesn't seek out amateurs or marginal alternative-health types, but visits big, respectable centers, like UCLA and other major universities. She wants to find out what's wrong with her, and we get to go along for the ride.

And quite a ride it is. Along the way, we learn an astonishing amount of information. She visits MIT, and finds out that her brain is filled with bothersome "background noise," caused by the fact that her prefrontal cortex--the lobes that guide, organize, and prioritize the information we take in--is overloaded. …

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