By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, January 26, 2016
For years now I’ve be plagued by forgetting words, especially nouns and names. From what I’ve read, that’s just a normal part of getting older. It doesn’t make me worry because my peers are experiencing the same problem.
Recently I started studying math using the Khan Academy. At first, I figured I could begin with algebra, but quickly discovered I needed to relearn basic arithmetic. One of the disconcerting things I’ve experience is thinking I’m doing a problem right, then double-checking, still feeling I’ve got the right answer, submitting the answer to Khan Academy, and seeing, nope, I was wrong. Damn! Each time I discovered I had made a very simply addition or multiplication mistake. If I had been calculating something in the real world, I would have used my answer with confidence. What a delusion.
More and more, I’ll start a movie on television thinking I haven’t seen that movie, only to discover I have. Sometimes, even fairly recently. And sometimes, I even have to watch 10-20 minutes before I realize my mistake. This is unnerving when I realize I saw the movie just three months ago. That would worry me big time, but I’ve heard other friends my age describe the same experience. Just another kind of senior moment we’re all collecting. And we all feel we can remember movies better from 50 years ago than the ones we saw last week.
I’ve been noticing in the past year or two I don’t have the same sense of balance that I did when I was younger. For example, I’ll be toweling off after a shower, and catch myself starting to fall because I was leaning over too much. Although, I still amaze myself with how often I can catch something I’ve accidently dropped. Some reflexes seem sharp, while others are wimping out.
Evidently neurons in every part of our brains are failing, but we don’t notice until we need them.
I don’t think anything is particularly wrong with me considering I’m 64. But I’m developing a theory. Maybe not a very scientific one, but still it’s my theory. I’m wondering as I lose neurons I’ll lose very tiny abilities. I’m sure I’ve got billions of neurons, but I’m thinking as we get older, and our neurons wink out, we’ll only notice their loss in subtle ways. Like one of those signs made of an array of thousands of lights, but with a few dead bulbs. The sign still conveys it’s message, but you see some dark holes where a light should be. It starts to be a problem when the dead lights change the wording.
I always pay attention to folks older than me, those in their 70s, 80s and 90s. They generally have more problems than I do, yet they still function. Just slower, with more little glitches.
I’ve read that we can grow new neurons even late in life, and make new synaptic pathways. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe if I keep studying math that other neurons will learn what the lost neurons knew. This hope fits in nicely with that old saying, “Use it or lose it.” But it also reminds me of those old acts on Ed Sullivan where a guy keeps a bunch of plates spinning on top of sticks. He would have to run from stick to stick to reenergize each plate to keep them all spinning. That would imply that anything we stop doing regularly is going to fall off its stick and break.
I also have to assume since none of us get out of here alive, that we’re all fighting losing battles. So over time, the number of dying neurons will grow faster than their replacements. That might explain why I see old people pursuing a dwindling list of interests as they age. I already feel like I’m chasing after too many hobbies and that I need to cut some loose. It’s like that old movie Lifeboat, where one by one the weak passengers give up. That means more for the survivors, but it’s cruel. I guess that also explains why downsizing is so popular with older people. We throw our weak interests overboard to die to help our major interests to keep living.
That line of thinking makes me wonder if I should sacrifice some hobbies sooner, if it would let me keep other hobbies longer. Here’s some of hobbies I was hoping to pursue in my retirement years:
- Essay writing
- Short story writing
- Novel writing
- Learn to program Python
- Learn to program R
- Study data mining
- Study deep learning programming
- Learn how to draw
- Study art history
- Relearning Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus
- Learning Linear Algebra, Discrete Mathematics and Statistics
- Learn basic electronics to build fun toys.
- Learn to build and program robots
- Build and play an analog synthesizer
- Learn to recreate famous science experiments
- Build a cheap supercomputer
- Buy a microscope and study simple microorganisms
The Khan Academy practice is teaching me just how ambitious my math goals are for an old guy. If I live another 20-30 years I might achieve some of them, but it’s going to take considerable work. Would those neurons be put to better use studying writing? Or does studying math boost my overall brain power that will help with writing too?
Should I give up my plans for math and electronics and gamble all my neurons on writing?
Of course, relearning math might be a complete pipe dream anyway. I’m currently studying 5th grade math. I might not have enough new neurons to get through algebra or geometry again. I’m working on an essay this week where I’ve hit the wall. I’m pretty sure I could get further if I gave up most other things I love to do each day.
It could be that neurons are like time, we only have so much, and as we get older, we need to ration our neurons.