Is it dementia or touch-tone trauma?

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    It all started when my sister sent me an amusing article titled, “Oh, Grow Up,” or Where have all the brain cells gone? I couldn’t believe it. My sister, the one who still speaks to me. What did I ever do to her besides forget her birthday more times than I can remember. Well, there you are. I take the fifth, amendment, that is.

    Mary Roach, the author of this midlife journal recounts several incidents of gross memory lapse familiar to just about everyone over, say, 55. What’s even more pathetic than what the memory has let go is what it has retained, she writes. “It’s as though the memory chip was put in backward.” She remembers the words to ’70s jingles for Tab, Fab and Tidy Bowl but can’t say who H.R. Haldeman was. “I recall only that he was involved in Watergate along with someone named Ehrlichman and that one of them may have had a high forehead.”

    It’s worse for me (I probably have 10 years on Ms. Roach, at least), so I can sing all the lyrics to every Broadway show of the ’50s, recite Shakespeare sonnets from my high school English class and even the original children’s fairy tales (a la Grimm, before Disney replaced the characters with Goofy and Daffy). This is not even useful on “Jeopardy” where the clues rarely relate to anything that old.

    So now I’m noticing about one newspaper article a day about Alzheimer’s and various other forms of dementia related to us older folks, and taking it a bit personally until I realize that November is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month. They know we won’t remember this unless there’s a reminder in every edition. I’ve been able to dismiss most of these as blather, but news of two new medical discoveries caught my attention.

    The first was about new research indicating that PET scans of the brain can diagnose Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages and can also predict which patients’ memory problems will develop into Alzheimer’s. The main benefit being that medications given early can stave off debilitating symptoms. Until now, the only definitive diagnosis came by autopsy.

    Oops, too late.

    With the PET scan, the bad news is you’ll know you’re losing it. I guess the good news is you may have 10 years or so before everyone else knows. Maybe time to write one’s memoirs, or at least those parts that are still retrievable by failing synapses and tangled ganglia. How scary is that?

    Where was I going with this? Oh, yes. The really bad news is HMOs and other purveyors of health insurance aren’t likely to pony up $1,500 for the scan. Actually, it would be a bargain if early treatment could delay by two years or more that day when they cart you off to the home. And just think what a relief it would be to discover that your failing memory has another cause, something curable, and is not likely to leave you mumbling sad things and not recognizing your relatives. Or could that be a benefit in itself? Or an excuse to pretend you don’t know your uncle from Haldeman or Ehrlichman. Whomever.

    Anyway, the second article that grabbed my span-shortened attention was about a new phone system that can actually detect dementia. Well, about 80 percent of the time, they say. AP medical writer Lindsey Tanner’s snappy lead was what did it. “If automated touch-tone phone answering systems drive you bonkers, imagine one designed to see if you really are.” Good job, Lindsey.

    This is how the study went: Participants were given recorded instructions such as “Spell ‘fun’ on the touch-tone pad.” I think I could spell a closely related word that I have often used when caught in the voice mail vortex. “Press ‘I’ if the following sentence makes sense: ‘We wanted to cut down the tree in the yard so we went to the garage to get a hammer.” Huh? How impaired would one have to be to know that the hammer is never in the garage and you can’t remember where you put it. If I want a tree cut down, I call the guy to pull it out with his tractor. I don’t own an ax because they don’t let me play with sharp things.

    This whole thing smacks of government-funded research grants. Anyone who didn’t tap out an obscenity on their touch-tone pad probably is losing their marbles. Dumb-study-induced dementia.

    As for me, if I could hit the right keys on a touch pad, I’d be a contestant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” But I can’t, so I have to test my memory on “Jeopardy” and crossword puzzles. Now, what’s a four-letter word for fun?