This anecdote got a laugh when he told it at a book signing, but when he announced a few months later that he was suffering from a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, it didn't seem so funny.
You'd think the nice part about losing your memory would be that you wouldn't remember that you were losing your memory. No. I think of all the diseases you could get, Alzheimer's must be the worst. The thing is, people often are aware when something's not right. They know there's a problem, though they don't always know what it is.
There was a big kerfuffle on Pasta Queen's blog when the comment was made that receiving a cancer diagnosis would be better than bearing chronic pain and never knowing what was wrong with you. Similarly, Pratchett claims that he'd rather have cancer than Alzheimer's. "I'd like a chance to die like my father did - of cancer, at 86.Remember, I'm speaking as a man with Alzheimer's, which strips away your living self a bit at a time. Before he went to spend his last two weeks in a hospice he was bustling around the house, fixing things. He talked to us right up to the last few days, knowing who we were and who he was. Right now, I envy him."
Even if you don't develop Alzheimer's, your brain will change as you age. It's not all bad news, though.
Richard Restak, the author of the best-selling Mozart and the Fighter Pilot's Brain points out that as we get older, the number of nerve cells decreases, "but the richness and complexity of brain circuitry increases." (My translation: Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.)
Physical exercise can help with memory loss. To quote wonderful Dr. Mirkin (yes, again), in an article he wrote about memory and blood sugar, "Hundreds of other studies show that 1) exercise slows loss of memory with aging, [and] 2) diabetes markedly increases risk for dementia...."
But according to Restak, the memory expert, physical exercise is not the main priority to help your brain. "The best protection against developing a memory disorder? Exercising the brain's memory mechanisms."
This seems to me to be rather important. The thing is, unless I get run over by a bus or develop a horrible disease, I'm going to get older. And I don't want to spend my last years confused while life goes past in a blur. It's heart-breaking to see someone deteriorate from a healthy alert personality to a confused faded forgetful shell of themselves.
While I was pondering this, I got an invitation to try out Lumosity. It's a web site devoted to cognitive learning. Sounds fancy, doesn't it? What it boils down to is a series of mental exercises, in the form of different online games, that are supposed to help keep your memory sharp.
When you start out, you complete a series of memory games that establishes a baseline. Then you perform memory workouts, for about 10 minutes a day, to work on improving your ability. You can also compare your results against the average test results for someone of your age group, which could prove useful.
One thing that I like about Lumosity is that it's a website where games are being updated and new games are being added, as opposed to some other brain programs that I've seen, which allow you to download a static software program.
Why do I want to play these video games? I've got bubbleshooter!
The nice part about doing memory exercises on the web is that I associate them with video games, i.e. it feels like I'm doing something fun. It's like chocolate-covered broccoli: something that's good for me and tastes good. (Okay, so I've never actually tried covering broccoli with chocolate. It's an analogy, okay? Work with me here.)
I love the idea of 'brain games,' the same way I love the idea of playtime exercise as opposed to working out on a treadmill. Some of the games were fun, some were frustrating. (Argh! I do not have an aptitude for spatial memory!) It was encouraging that I could re-try the frustrating exercises and see an improvement.
All that I've learned from playing games like Bubbleshooter was that I have a low frustration level -- and it doesn't improve the more I play the game.
What are these games like?
At first the games on the Lumosity site are childishly simple. I felt like I was playing at the two-year-old level. Then... um ... they're got more challenging.
One game tested peripheral eyesight and memory, which they claim helps with driving. (You had to watch for something appearing on the corner of the screen while remembering a letter that flashed in the middle of the screen at the same time.) Another game involved matching name tags with people, which is something that I have a helluva problem with at parties. Another had me trying to think -- under the clock -- of all the seven letter words out there that start with "Ann_____" I would've thought I was good at that, but not when I've got a clock ticking away.
I keep thinking that I should be able to improve my memory without paying some website $80. On the other hand, how much do you pay for your gym membership? Is your brain worth less than the rest of you? (That's $80 a year, or about $6.66 a month.)
Hell, why can't I just do these memory games on my own?
That's fine, if you've got access to games that will help you improve your memory. And if you're disciplined enough to actually do the work.
There probably are people who are self-disciplined enough to do something like this on my own. Me, I'd find excuses and rationalizations and it probably wouldn't get done. I've had Restak's book on my nightstand for the past three months, intending to go back and do some of the memory exercises that he describes. I'm sure I'll get around to it... one of these years... Why is it that it feels like work to perform exercises from a book, yet I always can find time for ten minutes of playing games on the computer? That's why I'm inclined to like the idea of this memory training website -- I'm more likely to actually do it.
I'm seriously considering giving a membership to my mother, since she's fixated on not losing her faculties.
Try it yourself. No strings.
If you're curious, check the Lumosity site out. They've got a seven-day trial version you can play with -- and you don't have to give any credit card information before starting the trial, which makes for a nice change.
Plus, it's a sweet setup: you get to play video games and no one can say you're not doing something useful! (Except perhaps the boss. Try this at home, eh?)
If you'd like to read more about the theory behind the Lumosity games, here's their Brain training page.
What do you think? Is this something you could (or more important, would) do on your own? Or would you consider trying a mental gym?