Sunday, May 30, 2010

Where the Heck did I Put my...?

Has anyone seen my glasses, my cell phone, my wallet, my keys?”

These questions can be heard in many households around the globe. Especially in households containing people over the age of fifty. Make that forty!

Thanks to ‘middle-aged’ brain syndrome (my own terminology), once we hit that particular stage, our lives and minds are never quite the same.

This week, when shopping at Costco, I filled my cart with the usual staples and then added several impulse purchases. Pressed for time, I got to the cash register with few minutes to spare before picking up my son at school. After scanning all my items, the cashier passed me the contraption to scan my debit card. To my shock and horror, I couldn’t remember my password.

“Do you have cash?” she asked.

I checked my wallet. $25 would definitely not cover the contents in my cart. “No,” I said. “Let me think for a second.” Well aware of the long line behind me, I racked my brain, practically causing a hemorrhage.

“We have an ATM over there,” the woman said.

I smiled. “That’s not going to help if I can’t remember my password.” I closed my eyes and thought some more. How could I forget? I’d been using this card for years, albeit not that frequently. “Do you take Visa?” I knew they didn’t but thought I’d inquire for good measure.

The only way I could explain this memory lapse to myself was that since Visa recently began requiring passwords, the place in my brain where I stored my debit card code had been taken over by my new four digit code. Not to mention all the other passwords floating around my brain competing for storage space.

The cashier had to reverse all but $25 worth of my purchases and another employee had to put everything back on the store shelves. I was so mortified that I couldn’t look at the people waiting in the line.

As I headed to my car, annoyed and frustrated, the forgotten password popped into my head. What a nasty trick!

Since I haven’t even reached the age of fifty, this is disturbing. And how many times have I walked into a room and forgotten what I was going there for? How often have I struggled for a person’s name when introducing them to someone? Such senior moments are not supposed to happen to me. Not yet.

I read, write, do crosswords, play scrabble and bridge, and even tackle Sudoku from time to time. Aren’t these activities supposed to keep our brains alert? Sure I have a million things going on in my life, including helping manage the lives of my kids and husband, but don’t we all?

Several years ago I read a Margaret Wente (Globe & Mail) article about her own struggles with forgetfulness. After removing her debit card and receipt from an ATM machine, she left without taking the cash she’d just withdrawn. Funny that I’d remember that story, which I’m sure I read more than five years ago.

Recently, I heard an interview on NPR (National Public Radio) about the aging brain: The Surprising Strengths of the Middle-Aged Brain. I have to admit, I fall right into the profile. Barbara Strauch, the health and medical science editor at The New York Times, writes about this very topic in her new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.

According to Staunch, the bad news is “Our brains do decline as we age” (no surprise), but "What [scientists are] starting to do is sort out what is normal aging [and] what is pathology and leading toward dementia — and they now know that dementia is not inevitable, and that basically this 'normal forgetting' is part of normal aging. And in many ways we can — if we keep ourselves healthy — actually improve our brains. We can live out the rest of our lives with pretty sharp brains if we're lucky."

The good news is this: “not all is lost in middle age. There are certain cognitive functions that improve as a brain grows older. Strauch points to studies that indicate that a sense of well-being peaks — across all occupations and ethnicities — as people reach middle age. In addition, she says, certain studies show that an older brain can solve problems better than a younger brain.”

Last night my husband and I went out for dinner. When he handed over his Visa to pay for the meal, and was given that little machine asking for his security code, guess what? He couldn’t remember it. Good thing I had my Visa card with me and I knew my password. Problem solved.

I guess if you put two aging brains together, the chances of someone remembering something are much improved!


  1. I can completely relate to this. I tell myself that it's because I'm trying to remember too many things. At least that makes me feel better!

  2. How embarrassing! But of course (being the same age) I can completely relate. I've always been forgetful by nature, but I learned to overcome that as an adult. Recently I seem to be slipping back! I think sometimes it's as you say -- over time, there are just too many competing memories for the same storage. Also, the more hectic the life, the more frazzled the brain! Good to know we're all in the same boat.

  3. So what is the solution then? Puzzles, post grad work or just reading maybe? A cliff hanger here...