ON AGING, Part 2

Posted Mar 17, 2008
Last Updated Apr 6, 2008

Senility 2 (03/18/2008)

    In my first "On Aging" piece, we looked at the seeming inevitability of senility.  (Dang!  Another rhyme.)  And of its unevenness.  For example, I'd lost substantial jumping ability by age 49, even though I could still run a 6-minute mile — and at 7,000 feet elevation. 
    It varies from person to person, too.  My large and hearty Swedish pal, Evert, was a bear of a man, still logging firewood at age 70; tapering off, so to speak.  And his recreation (besides sitting around drinking beer and swapping yarns) was dancing, especially folk dancing.  His wife liked dancing, too, and after she died, he began dating another senior lady who loved to dance.  They'd dance 2 or 3 times a week.  But he'd already been hospitalized a few times by organ breakdowns, and at age 75 or so, his dancing ended.  A year or so later he died. 
    My loss, not his.  He's free of a body that had played out; an entirely natural state of affairs.  I look forward to meeting him again, but I'm in no hurry.  Meanwhile my life remains good.

    That brief reminiscence is what researchers call an anecdotal example, and anecdotal examples are often implied to be of little value.  That is untrue.  Every case is anecdotal, just as every case is important to the people intimately connected with it.  Also, anecdotal cases lead researchers to what requires study — and lead us everyday persons to insights.  A case ceases to be medically considered anecdotal when it is part of a body of cases studied together in a statistical design that allows the researcher to assign mathematical probabilities to the results.
    Also, in writing about Evert, I was presenting an example of irregularities: bodies age at different rates.  And I was remembering the best friend I had in Spokane; I wasn't interested in probabilities.
    On a different tangent, assigning statistical probabilities requires various design restrictions, restrictions that often are not fully met — may even be impossible to meet in the real world — making the resulting probabilities erroneous.  Commonly, however, such studies still give useful, if more or less inaccurate probabilities.
    There!  Now I may have made some statistics professors mad at me.  Ah well, back to senility! 

In my first piece on senility, I looked almost solely at physical aging, and it was anecdotal all the way,  "Mental aging" is every bit as important, and in fact is an aspect of physical aging.  The mental, in "mental senility," commonly refers to mental symptoms of physical changes.  Now I shall visit upon you a couple of formal definitions.  The first, from the Columbia Encyclopedia (6th ed. 2007), is of Senility.  The second, from Wikipedia, is of Dementia.  (My thanks to Google.)

Senility: deterioration of body and mind associated with old age. Indications of old age vary in the time of their appearance. Stooped posture, wrinkled skin, decrease in muscle strength, changes in the lenses and muscles of the eye, brittleness of bone and stiffness of the joints, and hardening of the arteries (arteriosclerosis ) are among the physical changes associated with old age. The mental changes associated with senility include impairment of judgment, loss of memory, and sometimes childish behavior. The psychological changes are thought to be related to aging of the cortical brain cells. Whereas the physical changes associated with aging occur in all individuals to some extent, evidence of psychological [my italics] degeneration is not universal. In common usage, the term senility is applied only to mental deterioration.

Dementia (from Latin de- "apart, away" + mens (genitive mentis) "mind") is the progressive decline in cognitive function due to damage or disease in the brain beyond what might be expected from normal [sic] aging. 

And further, the University of Iowa publication Health Topics, tells us:

     There are many different types of dementia, and Alzheimer's disease is the most common. No one is certain about its cause. As a result, we do not know how to prevent this type of dementia.
    Strokes are the second most common cause of dementia [more about strokes in a few minutes].  To reduce your risk of stroke, make sure that you have your blood pressure regularly checked because high blood pressure can cause strokes. Watch your diet and limit your salt intake. Get plenty of exercise. Walking for 20 minutes 3 days a week can make a huge difference in your overall health, as well as reduce your risk of stroke…[more about exercise in a later piece].

    On the other hand—  This next may seem to veer off-topic again; it's about music. but actually it's about aging, too.
     Usually while preparing and eating brunch I listen to CDs, especially to "Dionne Warwick Sings Cole Porter," or to one my daughter-in-law compiled for me — opening with a couple of Bert Bacharach numbers sung by Dionne Warwick.  The rest, perhaps 8 or 10 of them, are sung by Rosemary Clooney, mostly songs big in the 1950s (no, not "do wop").  Clooney's pure precise voice and sure phrasing are delightful (they date from before her sabbatical to have a family).  They are beautiful in the purest sense of the word.  Her lively numbers, like "Come On-a My House" ("I wanna giva you candy"), and "This Old House" ("gettin' ready to meet the saints"), are certifiable acts of genius — witty and delightful.  (Of course most of that wittiness came from the lyricists: William Saroyan and Stuart Hamblen, but Clooney delivered it beautifully.) 

"This Ole House" seems clearly to be metaphor for the body wearing out, becoming rickety and non-functional, while looking back at much livelier earlier years, and "gettin' ready to meet the saints."  Here are the lyrics:  

This ole house once knew his children
This ole house once knew his wife
This ole house was home and comfort
As they fought the storms of life
This old house once rang with laughter
This old house heard many shouts
Now he trembles in the darkness
When the lightnin' walks about

Ain't a-gonna need this house no longer
Ain't a-gonna need this house no more
Ain't got time to fix the shingles
Ain't got time to fix the floor
Ain't got time to oil the hinges
Nor to mend the window pane
Ain't a-gonna need this house no longer
He's a-gettin' ready to meet the saints

This ole house is a-gettin' shaky
This ole house is a-gettin' old
This ole house lets in the rain
This ole house lets in the cold
Oh his knees are a-gettin' chilly
But he feels no fear nor pain
'Cause he sees an angel peekin'
Through a broken windowpane

This ole house is afraid of thunder
This ole house is afraid of storms
This ole house just groans and trembles
When the night wind flings its arms
This ole house is gettin' feeble
This old house is needin' paint
Just like him it's tuckered out
He's a-gettin' ready to meet the saints


    And while I'm borrowing— The other day a friend emailed me a link to an interesting website, "TED: Ideas worth spreading,"
an interview with a brain researcher named Jill Bolte Taylor, who described her stroke of some eight years previous.  It was a long piece, and being an off-the-cuff interview, inevitably it rambled at times.  Also she made points that are remote from my topic, and their inclusion would have fogged my own points.  So (except for her closing paragraph) I have trimmed it to fit my needs.  But I have left it almost entirely in her own words, because it is intensely personal.  And quite beautiful.  I have indicated my cuts in the usual way, with ellipses (…).  Some of the deletions are of entire paragraphs; I probably shortened it by half.  And where I have altered the wording (largely to tie excerpts together), my changes and occasional comments are in brackets, the usual treatment. 
    I suggest you read the complete interview on the  TED site, and as many of the replies as you might care to.  Her points are very interesting, as are the bare facts of her experience that I'm passing on to you here. 
    When you've read this, you might think, but this happened to a woman only 37 years old.  That's not old.  You're right, of course.  But strokes are far more common among old people, and reading this provides insights into what some elderly stroke victims may experience.  It is particularly illuminating coming from someone highly knowledgable about brain function.
So, here is Ms Taylor speaking

I was working in the lab of Dr. Francine Benes, in the Harvard Department of Psychiatry….essentially mapping the microcircuitry of the brain — which cells are communicating with which cells, with which chemicals, and then with what quantities of those chemicals.

[On] the morning of December 10 1996 I woke up to discover that I had a brain disorder of my own. A blood vessel exploded in the left half of my brain. And in the course of four hours I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life.  [However...]

If you've ever seen a human brain, it's obvious that the two hemispheres [of that brain] are completely separate from one another.…

For those of you who understand computers, our right hemisphere functions like a parallel processor, while our left hemisphere functions like a serial processor. The two hemispheres do communicate with one another through the corpus collosum, which is made up of some 300 million axonal fibers…. Because they process information differently, each hemisphere thinks about different things, they care about different things, and dare I say, they have very different personalities.

Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It's all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. [My emphasis.]  What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like.  [If you get nothing else from this piece, get this paragraph.] 

[My paragraph break] I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, we are all brothers and sisters on this planet…. We are whole. And we are beautiful.

My left hemisphere is a very different place. Our left hemisphere thinks linearly and methodically. Our left hemisphere is all about the past, and it's all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment, and start picking details and more details and more details about those details. It then categorizes and organizes all that information. [And will revise that categorization/organization in the future.] Associates it with everything in the past we've ever learned, and projects into the future all of our possibilities.
And our left hemisphere thinks in language. It's that ongoing brain chatter that connects me and my internal world to my external world. It's that little voice that says to me, "Hey, you gotta remember to pick up bananas on your way home, and eat 'em in the morning." It's that calculating intelligence that reminds me when I have to do my laundry. But perhaps most important, it's that little voice that says to me, "I am. I am."

And as soon as my left hemisphere says to me "I am," I become separate. I become a single solid individual separate from the energy flow around me, and separate from you.

[This] was the portion of my brain that I lost on the morning of my stroke [my emphasis].

On the morning of the stroke, I woke up to a pounding pain behind my left eye…. Then it just gripped me and then released me.  [And not being someone who's experienced with pain] I thought OK, I'll just start my normal routine. So I got up and I jumped onto my cardio glider, which is a full-body exercise machine. And I'm jamming away on this thing, and I'm realizing that my hands looked like primitive claws grasping onto the bar. I thought "that's very peculiar" and I looked down at my body and I thought, "whoa, I'm a weird-looking thing." And it was as though my consciousness had shifted away from my normal perception of reality — where I'm the person on the machine having the experience — to some esoteric space where I'm witnessing myself having this experience.

And it was all very peculiar and my headache was just getting worse, so I get off the machine, and I'm walking across my living room floor, and I realize that everything inside of my body has slowed way down. And every step is very rigid and very deliberate. There's no fluidity to my pace, and there's this constriction in my area of perceptions so I'm just focused on internal systems. And I'm standing in my bathroom getting ready to step into the shower and I could actually hear the dialog inside of my body. I heard a little voice saying, "OK, you muscles, you gotta contract, you muscles you relax."

And I lost my balance and I'm propped up against the wall. And I look down at my arm and I realize that I can no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can't define where I begin and where I end. Because the atoms and the molecules of my arm blended with the atoms and molecules of the wall. And all I could detect was this energy. Energy. And I'm asking myself, "What is wrong with me, what is going on?" And in that moment, my brain chatter, my left hemisphere brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button and — total silence.

[At] first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful there.

Then all of a sudden my left hemisphere comes back online and it says to me, "Hey! we got a problem, we got a problem, we gotta get some help." So it's like, OK, OK, I got a problem, but then I immediately drifted right back out into the consciousness...I affectionately referred to...as La La Land. But it was beautiful there. Imagine what it would be like to be totally disconnected from your brain chatter that connects you to the external world. So here I am in this space and any stress related to my, to my job, it was gone. And I felt lighter in my body. And imagine all of the relationships in the external world and the many stressors related to any of those — they were gone. I felt a sense of peacefulness. And imagine what it would feel like to lose 37 years of emotional baggage! I felt euphoria. Euphoria was beautiful — and then my left hemisphere comes online and it says "Hey! you've got to pay attention, we've got to get help," and I'm thinking, "I got to get help, I gotta focus." So I get out of the shower and I mechanically dress and I'm walking around my apartment, and I'm thinking, "I gotta get to work, I gotta get to work, can I drive? can I drive?"

And in that moment my right arm went totally paralyzed by my side. And I realized, "Oh my gosh! I'm having a stroke! I'm having a stroke!" And the next thing my brain says to me is, "Wow! This is so cool. This is so cool. How many brain scientists have the opportunity to study their own brain from the inside out?"

And then it crosses my mind: "But I'm a very busy woman. I don't have time for a stroke!" So I'm like, "OK, I can't stop the stroke from happening so I'll do this for a week or two, and then I'll get back to my routine, OK."

So I gotta call help, I gotta call work. I couldn't remember the number at work, so I remembered, in my office I had a business card with my number on it. So I go in my business room, I pull out a 3-inch stack of business cards. And I'm looking at the card on top, and even though I could see clearly in my mind's eye what my business card looked like, I couldn't tell if this was my card or not, because all I could see were pixels. And the pixels of the words blended with the pixels of the background and the pixels of the symbols, and I just couldn't tell. And I would wait for what I call a wave of clarity. And in that moment, I would be able to reattach to normal reality and I could tell, that's not the card, that's not the card, that's not the card. It took me 45 minutes to [work my way] one inch down inside of that stack of cards.

In the meantime, for 45 minutes the hemorrhage is getting bigger in my left hemisphere. I do not understand numbers, I do not understand the telephone, but it's the only plan I have. So I take the phone pad and I put it right here, I'd take the business card, I'd put it right here, and I'm matching the shape of the squiggles on the card to the shape of the squiggles on the phone pad. But then I would drift back out into La La Land, and not remember when I come back if I'd already dialed those numbers.

So I had to wield my paralyzed arm like a stump, and cover the numbers as I went along and pushed them, so that as I would come back to normal reality I'd be able to tell, yes, I've already [entered] that number. Eventually the whole number gets dialed, and I'm listening to the phone, and my colleague picks up the phone and he says to me, "Whoo woo wooo woo woo."  And I think to myself, "Oh my gosh, he sounds like a golden retriever!" And so I say to him, clear in my mind I say to him, "This is Jill! I need help!" And what comes out of my voice is, "Whoo woo wooo woo woo." I'm thinking, "Oh my gosh, I sound like a golden retriever." So I couldn't know, I didn't know, that I couldn't speak or understand language until I tried.

So he recognizes that I need help, and he gets me help. And a little while later, I am riding in an ambulance from one hospital across Boston to Mass General Hospital. And I curl up into a little fetal ball. And just like a balloon with the last bit of air just, just right out of the balloon, I felt my energy lift and I felt my spirit surrender. And in that moment I knew that I was no longer the choreographer of my life. And either the doctors rescue my body and give me a second chance at life or this was perhaps my moment of transition.

When I awoke later that afternoon I was shocked to discover that I was still alive. When I felt my spirit surrender, I said goodbye to my life, and my mind is now suspended between two very opposite planes of reality. Stimulation coming in through my sensory systems felt like pure pain. Light burned my brain like wildfire, and sounds were so loud and chaotic that I could not pick a voice out from the background noise and I just wanted to escape. Because I could not identify the position of my body in space, I felt enormous and expansive, like a genie just liberated from her bottle. And my spirit soared free like a great whale gliding through the sea of silent euphoria. Harmonic. I remember thinking there's no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny little body.

Then I realized "But I'm still alive! I'm still alive and I have found Nirvana…. I have found Nirvana and I'm still alive…. And then I realized what a tremendous gift this experience could be…and it [motivated my recovery].

Two and a half weeks after the hemorrhage, the surgeons went in and...removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball that was pushing on my language centers. It took me eight years to completely recover.

So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is.

    Thank you, Jill Bolte Taylor.  And now we are back in the everyday left-brain world of John Dalmas.  The next installment will take us back to my personal world, in fact, which I shared with my wife through her quite different experiences with strokes (plural). 
    Thanks for hanging with me.