Quantifying My Cognitive Decline

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 5, 2019

I subscribe to a service called Grammarly which checks my spelling and grammar as I write. Grammarly sends me a weekly report on how I’m doing. Two years ago it would tell me I was more accurate than 65-70% of their users, referring to grammar and spelling. I doubt even when I was young it would have been much higher. In recent months that number has fallen to 35-40%. And I can feel it. I have to proof my posts countless times and I still find errors after I’ve published. I’m appalled by how bad my writing has become. If I published my first drafts readers would think they were following Charlie Gordon into his descent phase from the book Flowers for Algernon.

I consider this good quantitative data on my cognitive decline. Grammarly does give me some good news. I’m generally more productive than 98-99% of their users, and my vocabulary is larger than 98-99% of their users. The first is explained by being retired and writing for two blogs. The second reflects long term memory. I can tell it’s my short term memory that’s failing.

I still don’t see this as an early sign of dementia, but I might be deluding myself. I think it’s just an aspect of normal aging. We’re used to seeing our bodies getting old because of all the visible physical changes. We’re not used to mental changes because they are less observable to ourselves and the people around us. Unless we talk or act differently, other people don’t see the changes. And we don’t feel the changes unless we try to do something and fail.

I have been noticing the number of times people ask me why I’m not talking. I tell them I’m just listening to them. Or say I’m thinking. But I believe it’s because it takes more effort to put thoughts into words, and when I do talk I can’t remember words, or I verbally trip when saying sentences. My cognitive problems are the most obvious when writing. If I’m just playing with the cats, watching television, or listening to music I feel fine. I believe we ignore our mental aging by doing less and saying less. Of course, many people also ignore signs of physical aging — that’s why so many foolish oldsters fall off ladders.

The real question is: Can we exercise the mind like we exercise the body? It appears we can slow physical decline by being more active. Is that also true for mental activity? My first reaction when I realized I was making more spelling and grammar errors was to quit writing. But I quickly decided that was the wrong approach. I believe writing exercises the mind. Instead of quitting I should work harder. However, I might need crutches. I thought about pilots who use preflight checklists, or how surgeons now use checklists to avoid making surgical mistakes.

I already pay Grammarly to keep an eye on me, but it’s far from perfect. In fact, when I see errors after I published it means Grammarly and I both missed them. I usually proofread my posts four or five times before I hit the published button. Often the most glaring mistakes are last-minute rephrasing where I don’t proof the whole sentence, or whole paragraph again. But other mistakes come from reading too fast and assuming I’m seeing what I read.

I believe my essays give the illusion that my mind is working just fine. Y’all don’t see how many broke things I fix. I use the internet to cheat. It really is my auxiliary memory. And I have unlimited do-overs. Most importantly, I can take all the time I need to say what I want.

I’ve always been a good typist. It’s been the most useful skill I learned in high school. What I typed used to be what I thought. Thoughts came out of my fingers. That’s no longer true. Now my fingers give me sound-alike words, leave out words, type words twice, and even throw in extra words. Quite often I end up typing just the opposite of what I was thinking. While typing this paragraph I created 8-10 alternate words to what I was thinking. Just that could explain the halving of my accuracy score in Grammarly.

[When proofing the above paragraph I had a new insight. What if my typing is as accurate as ever, and I’m merely typing jumbled thoughts when I once transcribed clear ones?]

Writing isn’t the only way I’m seeing increased cognitive problems. The other day I wrote “Untying a Knotted Plot” about my difficulty of understanding a short story. I had to read it four times. Admittedly, it is a complicated story. The author even wrote a couple of comments to help me. That essay was extremely difficult to compose. I struggled with trying to comprehend the story and write about it clearly. Every time I typed the author’s name I looked at the magazine to verify the spelling. I still got it wrong three out of eight times. I proofed the hell out of that piece because errors seem to be popping like popcorn. I felt like I was playing a very desperate game of Whack-a-Mole.

There’s another reason to keep writing. I want to document my own decline. Like the researchers in Flowers for Algernon, they tell Charlie to keep a journal. I’m going to be my own researcher and subject. I think it’s useful to be aware of my diminishing abilities. Aging is natural, and I accept it. I’m willing to work to squeeze all I can from my dwindling resources. What’s vital is being aware of what’s happening. The real problem to fear is becoming unconscious to who we are. Like Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The reason why Flowers for Algernon was such a magnificent story is that we’re all Charlie Gordon. We all start out dumb, get smart, and then get dumb again. Charlie just did it very fast, and that felt tragic. We do it slowly and try to ignore it’s happening. That’s also tragic.



32 thoughts on “Quantifying My Cognitive Decline”

  1. James,
    You are indeed a rare man: You write from the heart. That, of course, becomes the struggle, to get the intellect to say, to put into exactly the correct words, what you’re feeling and observing. And then, once that thinking kicks in, the fingers simply get left behind.
    And proof-reading your own words? Indeed, nearly impossible. You might be looking at words but you’re reading the thoughts.
    So from me, only two thoughts.
    (01) You wrote: “I’ve always been a good typist. It’s been the most useful skill I learned in high school.”
    In September ’67, I entered grade 11 of high-school. I needed to take a couple of “electives”. I took typing. Starting a journal, handwritten, back in ’79, we got a word-processor in the early ’90’s and I have been typing those entries ever since. Think how differently our lives would have played out had we decided, “Pfft. Why bother? I ain’t never gonna type nothin’.”
    (02) And you wrote: “There’s another reason to keep writing. I want to document my own decline.”
    You stated perfectly why that single journal, started in ’79, is now 55 titles and just shy of 6 million words long. Yes, I still enjoy the fantasy of a someone, a total stranger, reading it all. But now? I am old, I am tired, I am tired of, and I am tired from. And I am right there with you. I write now simply to “document my own decline”.
    Keep writing, James. Those concerns and worries about whether it has all been just a pleasant enough habit, perhaps even healthy discipline, to perhaps it being some kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior or for that matter, an E. A. Poe-like madness–“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary…”–the worst really is over. And as the mind thinks and wonders while the heart feels and agonizes over it all and the fingers try to keep up, it seems Mr. Poe gets the last word:
    Thank Heaven! the crisis-
    The danger is past,
    And the lingering illness
    Is over at last-
    And the fever called “Living”
    Is conquered at last….
    James, stay safe and be well.

    1. Randy, we must be the same age. I started the 11th grade in 1967. At Coral Gables High School, Florida. It was that year the PE coach told us we’d be taking typing for one six-week period. We didn’t have a choice. All us guys were taken to typing class. I wish I had kept a journal since I started writing in elementary school. I’ve often thought kids today could easily do that by blogging.

      1. (I’m a year older.) I only took one summer school class – typing. Little did I know that I would spend much of the rest of my life at a keyboard. I earned a bit of spare cash typing papers for fellow students in college. Later I became a computer programmer.

  2. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you before, but when I read your posts, I am often reminded of Montaigne, who invented the art of shared self-revelation.

    My memory is not what it once was either and it drives me crazy when I can’t recall a word that I need when I know it is just right for the occasion and it’s hiding in the back of my mind somewhere.

    A new scare: I compose on a desktop computer with a large screen and a querty keyboard. My last session of writing was about 4 hours – I had to stop because of the painful eye strain. That was a week ago and my eyes still have not returned to normal. I was in a panic until I learned that this is common for aging, drying-out eyes, is not permanent, and will not cause vision loss. But still – I’ve had to curtail reading and screens for a week now.

    Like you, I fight through multiple drafts and re-writes when I write. I think I will try hand-written drafting.

    Glad to hear that you’ve decided not to quit writing.

    1. I used to have dry eyes that were always red, but my doctor prescribed Restasis. It works great. Luckily I have insurance because it’s very expensive though.

      Even being thought of with Montaigne in the same sentence is quite a compliment. Thanks.

  3. Jim, what I find is that I used to complete tasks while hardly even thinking about them, but now it takes my full concentration. I also print out a hard copy and proof that; it seems much easier to me than proofing on the screen, probably from all those years of grading student writing. Carla


  4. Hi Jim. One thing that we know is protective of mild cognitive decline is keeping your blood pressure below 120 systolic. Of course we all know exercise helps cognitive abilities bit whether we do it is another thing altogether!

  5. One quick remark. The composition of users of Grammarly is changing over time. Also, if the technology works, it’s training people to get better at writing—and in particular, training them to avoid making the errors that they identify as errors.

    In addition, the technology is changing. What the algorithm counts as an error is evolving, too.

    So, if you start out as a very good writer, and if Grammarly is a technology that works to make people better writers, it is natural that your relative position will decline over time. So I wouldn’t read too much into this statistic.

    1. Except that I see that I’m making way more errors. Actually, the Grammarly stats only reflect what I’m experiencing in other ways. But I do agree there could be other explanations, including changes in Grammarly.

    2. Hey, Will…
      Oh, no. It sounds like you’re alluding to a demon from my past, one who remains, brought into existence simply to torment me, personally.
      It was way back in elementary school (’58 – ’63–I took 03 grades in two years, hence 06 years instead of 07 as this pre-dated middle schools) we were taught about commas. The example was 03 sisters whose parents had died. The parents had divided their estate equally between, or should that be among, their 03 daughters, i.e., divided equally between (and I’m making up names now) Vanessa, Lisa and Rhoda. The judge gave half to Vanessa. The other half was to be divided between Lisa and Rhoda. The absence of a comma between “Lisa, and Rhoda,” created 02 parties instead of 03 as was, all involved agreed, the parents wishes. The judge, of course, stuck to the letter of the law.
      So I have since continued to write A, B, and C. The flag is “red, white, and blue”. It is NOT “red, white and blue”. Period. That’s an absolute. It will never change. Meet my demon.
      That “rule,” however, has changed, back and forth. My daughters (one 33, the other 24) were never taught it, never heard of it–except for me telling them this same story. And slowly, over the years, I noticed that “they” simply abolished that second comma.
      And then recently I found an article that explained it, at least in part. And this chap said it had to do with newspapers, that they could save lots of space and therefore get more printed words into the paper if they simply dropped that comma.
      So there is no point I am trying to make other than for this one seemingly innocuous and harmless enough reason, I could never, ever trust “technology” to make these decisions for me and that’s because the people who create and perpetuate this technology are also always changing.
      At this point, I might revert back to using “Thee” and “Thou”. And yes, the “revert back” was deliberate, a hint of yet another acceptable change over the years. I hear it in movie dialogue, in television shows, in the “news”. And my ears bleed….
      Will, stay safe and be well.

  6. I enjoyed your post and it reminded me of the time when I was studying for an engineering license exam (read- lots of algebra) and listened to classical music. Then one night I put on jazz. It was amazing- I was much better and neater in algebra with the classical music playing. Have you changed any inputs or distractions since over these 2 years?

    Also- double down on the work is the right attitude- use it or lose it, my 85 year old mother likes to say.

    1. I just read an article about the effects of different kinds of music on studying. I’m afraid losing parts of our short term memory is sort of like losing some of our hair as we age.

  7. I enjoyed your post and it reminded me of the time when I was studying for an engineering license exam (read- lots of algebra) and listened to classical music. Then one night I put on jazz. It was amazing- I was much better and neater in algebra with the classical music playing. Have you changed any inputs or distractions since over these 2 years?

    Also- double down on the work is the right attitude- use it or lose it, my 85 year old mother likes to say.

  8. You may also want to consider that the transformation of thoughts to words, sentences, and paragraphs is not just a process that goes on in the brain. Especially as we learn, more of the task is autonomic. I find myself more and more often on auto-pilot; and I’ve also noted that sometimes my hands (seem to) have minds of their own. My (same age as you) old fingers and arms twitch more and I’m sometimes surprised what I’ve written (in detail). Keep in mind that there are biomechanical aspects to aging (not to mention the changing keyboards over the years…I use a full sized mechanical, but I’m pretty sure it’s slower…) Anyway, the point of suggesting learning might be contributing is that it’s a feature, not a bug. (but some of the stuff is just annoying, my fingers don’t always ‘fire’ in the expected sequence. A known ‘bug’ of multi-threading, so arguably even that isn’t necessarily a degradation.)

    1. That’s why I’m annoyed that my typing fingers don’t seem to work the same as they used to. I do have better days than others. And my hands are beginning to be bothered by arthritis, so that could be a factor too. But the funny thing is how whole words are substituted. Often they have similar sounds or letters, so I wonder if my fingers are just getting hard of hearing my brain. Ha-ha.

  9. Have you tried changing your diet – not just what you eat, but when, how much, and how often? Then, of course, exercise is well-known to rejuvenate the ol’ brain cells. Good luck.

  10. In 1971, I was in 12 grade. You are voicing something about myself I have also noticed lately; the way I skip putting down words while writing – such as leaving out a “not” – or I misspell simple words, like “they’re” instead of “their”. I am wholly forgiving when I see other people doing the same things. I worked as a legal secretary for 20 years, starting out on manual typewriters and using carbon paper, and typed like a tornado all day long; but, I now stamp my feet and curse at times, the way my fingers have forgotten which keys are which. The most basic sentences take me a minute to put down. Despite these problems, I have to say that both my short-term and long-term memory works just fine. I admit to getting involved in something in the moment and lose track of time, but I never actually forget anything. I am always on time and on schedule. I always recall what people are talking about, even when they come up with something from out of the blue.

    1. Katherine, I’m like you. I’m always on time, don’t forget anything important, and always know what people are talking about. I think what I was writing about and what you identify with is a kind of glitch in our system. Not a major one yet. We get more and more physical defects as we age, so why not mental defects. However, on the whole, we’re still functioning pretty well.

  11. For proofreading, I wonder if it would be more effective to have the computer read your text aloud, while you have a printout at hand that you can make notes on if you hear something that needs revision or correction?

  12. There are many causes of the type of cognitive decline you describe. Many can be treated, corrected or mitigated.
    If I were you I’d get worked up at a memory clinic. Mayo Clinic Rochester MN has an excellent reputation, if that is handy to where you are.

    1. “If I published my first drafts readers would think they were following Charlie Gordon into his descent phase from the book Flowers for Algernon.”

      I laughed out loud at that even though it is dark.
      The reason you had a problem writing a review of that story is because it is confusing/poorly told. It is difficult to write reviews of stories like that (ask me how I know). I don’t think the difficulty you experienced is anything to do with you.

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