My Brain Has a Mind of Her Own

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     No pun intended.
     With my growing older comes an awareness that my brain isn’t what she used to be. I think. Or maybe not. I wonder. Hmmm.  I find myself struggling for words and for names from time to time. But is this something new? I’m not sure. I wasn’t paying as close attention to my brain when I was younger as I am now. All of a sudden it seems she is a major player in my life, while before she merely accompanied me wherever I went, remembering things for me, making me look smart from time to time, and urging me to write my stories and sing my songs.
     I remember when I was teaching school way back when I was in my 30s, it seemed like it took forever for me to remember the names of my students. I came up with a handy-dandy “cheat sheet” in the way of a classroom bulletin board that I used every year for the first month or so of school. My bulletin board theme was “Our Class Hall of Fame.” I took a Polaroid photo of each of my students on the first day of school, and each one would decorate and write his or her name on a construction paper picture frame, and then tack it to the bulletin board, along with the photo. Very clever, if I do say so myself! By the time it was time to change themes, I knew everybody’s name, and what each of my students looked like. Retaining names seems to have always been an issue with me to some extent.
     But what about word recall? That is something that has begun within the past 10 years or so. The funny thing about this is that I will struggle and struggle to think of a word or phrase without it making an appearance in my mouth, mind, or ears. Then, when I least expect it, that particular word will pop up out of nowhere, to an amazed “Ah-ha!” from me. I have labeled this phenomenon”bubbling to the surface.” It is as if the word is hidden somewhere in the depths of my brain, and it just takes a little time for it to float up to my consciousness for me to grab hold of it, often at times when I am not expecting it at all.
     Last week when I was taking the cognition test for the Emory University Healthy Brain Research Study that I am participating in, Miss Brain went into action, or rather overt inaction. After about 20 minutes of looking at pictures, drawing clock faces and geometrical figures, and counting backwards by 3’s from 100, she let me know in no uncertain terms that she was done, finished, out-o-here. It was 2:00 pm, her lunch was settling after having fasted for 12 hours, and it was nap time. As I struggled to recall some pictures I had just looked at and verbally identified, my brain clicked off (I could almost hear the turn of the knob indicating to me that she was protesting mightily), and my thoughts began to wander in so many directions, I had to try to lasso them to reel them back in. I was unsuccessful. Miss Brain had left the building. She was out there somewhere searching for some soothing music to listen to, or some puffy clouds floating above to gaze at. Neither of these were available in the small testing room, so I was stuck with my protesting brain, which was sending messages to me that she was no longer interested in this particular exercise, and that she was ready to leave. Done! she reminded me once more. Thankfully, the testing concluded, and I was allowed to take my protesting brain back out into the world where she could hear birds sing, look up at the brilliant blue sky, do a little daydreaming, and get back to her everyday, normal life.
     It’s funny, thinking about aging and wondering how my brain is going to maneuver through old-age with me. I have been doing a lot of reading on brain health, have watched the documentary series, “The Broken Brain,” and watched a presentation on the relationship between the brain and the heart and one on the brain and the gut. She has her fingers, so to speak, in every part of my body! I know it is up to me to do my very best to keep my brain happy and healthy, as well as entertained, challenged, well-fed, and stimulated.
     One thing I know for sure, Miss Brain is happiest when I am joyful and at peace with my life. She thrives on my writing, and she loves music. Just today, she let me know that she was weary of the country music station I’ve been listening to on the radio and requested some classical music. I found a very nice selection on YouTube for her listening enjoyment, and together we took a 30 minute break to meditate and listen to the orchestra. We agreed that we like the strings best. It was delightful.
     Miss Brain has a vitally important job to do, and she does it well. So what if she forgets the name of someone I have just met, or needs a little time to come up with a word that I am searching for? I am hopeful that she will remain healthy for several more years and will see me through to the end of my life. I don’t want to succumb to Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, and I know she doesn’t want that for me, either. With the two of us working as a team, perhaps we will have many more adventures in this life of mine!
     Yes, she does have a mind of her own. And it is also mine.
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Brainy Me – The Emory Healthy Brain Study

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“If you could change the world for the better, would you?” This is the tag line for Emory University’s Healthy Aging Study.

When I learned about this study, I signed up for it, knowing that I wanted to, in some small way, do just that. As I have grown older I’ve looked back at my life, pondering if anything I have done in my 70 years has really made a difference in someone’s life, and if so, what was it?

Joining this group only opened the door for me to something even more exciting and potentially very rewarding. I was invited to participate in Emory’s long-term research study, “Healthy Brain Study.”  When I spoke with the coordinator of this study, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. As information about the study states, “The study’s goal is ambitious – eliminate Alzheimer’s, a disease that has no cure or prevention. The Emory Healthy Brain Study believes you hold the key to finding clues to stop Alzheimer’s disease.”

I hold the key! How exciting! And how challenging! What did I need to do? Maybe this is where my life will make a difference, a big difference! Where do I sign up?

After a short phone interview, it was determined that I was eligible to take part in this study. My appointment was made for a day of testing at the Emory Brain Health Center, I received directions to the center, as well as instructions on how to prepare, and I was on my way.

Yesterday was the big day. And what a day it was. Not only did I meet some wonderful, dedicated, smart, and interesting health professionals, but I also made a connection or two on a personal level with them as we journeyed through the day together. They eased my apprehensions, calmed my anxiety (especially the one about how to obtain a fecal sample), and taught me a thing or two about my body and my brain. It was fascinating, as I breezed through having my blood drawn, finding out how my blood flows through my body, getting to take a look at my spinal fluid, seeing an image of my eyeball, and discovering that I can walk around an oval track holding a full glass of water in my hand, as well as counting backward by 3s from 100 while walking.

What kicked my butt, however, was the cognitive test. Oh my! I have always had a problem with remembering series of numbers, recalling names, and bringing up instant recall of things my brain deemed insignificant. My mother called it selective listening. I chose to label it as brain clutter, mixed with a tinge of attention deficit disorder, and a dash of creativity that liked to take over when my brain became overloaded with mundane matters or taxed with something it was not interested in. As I’ve grown older, I am aware that my memory is challenged on a more regular basis, and I am learning techniques to put associations with things I really want to remember.  I don’t know how I scored on the test yesterday, or if there was even a grade attached to it. It was mainly a baseline for the future as I continue in the research study. It sure threw me for a loop, though!

As my day with the Brain Folks at Emory ended, a feeling of elation and satisfaction overwhelmed me, and I found myself close to tears in my dilated eyes as I drove away. I left them my blood, my spinal fluid, an abundance of images of my eyes, my arteries, and my walking gait, as well as a small sample of my poop. (I also plan to donate my brain to Emory upon my death). Maybe there will be something in this contribution, as well as in my next one when I go back in two years that will help the researchers discover why so many of us succumb to dementia and Altzheimer’s as we age. I am a small, small part of a big, big group, but perhaps collectively we will light the pathway to the answers and the cure.

If this is how I can change the world for the better, then my life definitely has a very meaningful purpose.

Jennie Lou’s brain is ready to help out in any way she can!

 

To learn more about the Healthy Brain Study, visit healthyaging.emory.edu/brain-study/, email healthybrainstudy@emory.edu, or call(404)727-4877.

Osteoporosis of the Heart?

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I am not encountering any aches or pains from my newly discovered diagnosis of advancing osteopenia and osteoporosis. Perhaps my bones are losing density and becoming brittle, but I feel healthy and strong, and I am making sure my diet includes the nutrients I need to make my bones stronger and healthier.

I can still walk and run, dance and twirl, swim in pools and wade in creeks, and do most anything I want to do. I feel like I am in control of my own well-being and health, and my body is carrying me where I need to go with no complaints. As one research paper I read proclaimed, it’s not the brittleness of the bones that is at the heart of this condition, but it is in the flexibility of the bones and in the strength of the muscles that support them, along with, of course, not falling. As long as bones don’t break, there is no problem.  With a good team working inside my body, I feel like am doing OK on this front.

But what about my heart? Is it healthy, or is it suffering from a type of osteoporosis, a brittleness and fragility that I can’t explain or do anything about? Divorced six years now (and this was my second marriage!), and a survivor of a few romantic encounters since my marriage ended which weren’t meant to be, I am now a 70-year-old woman looking for love, true love. And, as it appears, I’ve been looking in all the wrong places these past few years. Nothing has clicked for me so far, and as I look at yet another relationship fading into the sunset, I wonder if the Good Fairy of True Love has passed me by for good, shaking her head in puzzled defeat and tucking her magic wand snugly into her belt in a display of utter failure.

Those who know and love me reassure me that there is a man out there who is looking for me, one who will cherish me, and one who will appreciate all of my good qualities. I guess just haven’t met him yet. While I love these people and appreciate their kind words, I can’t say that I believe them wholeheartedly. At my age, I’m not sure that this man exists, and if he does, why would he want to become involved in a relationship that most likely could include care-giving, possible dementia, cancer, stroke, or other life-altering disabilities down the road, either for him or for me? Who would want to take on that kind of burden? Is there such a thing as true love at this age of life that would embrace love, along with the ailments and challenges that accompany getting older? For better or for worse and in sickness and in health take on a whole new meaning as one ages and doesn’t have a lifelong partner with a long history of togetherness. And what about families who are asked to accept a new person into their fold as their aging parent’s new partner?  Is it even a sane thought to imagine that love will find a way with all of these obstacles jumping out into the road we senior citizens travel? I’m not sure it is, and I wonder.

This I know. My heart is still capable of being broken, bruised, and battered. A man I dated briefly stated that if our relationship didn’t work out, he would be able to go on with his life on his own and that he would be fine. I thought, yes, I would go on with my life, as well, and would also be fine, but that’s not to say that my osteoporotic heart might be broken and need some time to heal. You see, when I give my heart to someone, I gently place it into his hands to protect, nurture, and cherish. If he returns it to me rejected and stomped upon, it’s going to take some time for me to get over it. Thank goodness that like my bones, my heart retains a bit of flexibility. It doesn’t shatter into a million pieces with no chance of healing. It may be bruised and battered, but with some time and a gentle touch, it will be healthy once again. It will carry a few more scars, of course, but will still be fully functioning.

I may be 70 years old, a senior citizen, an elderly adult, an old woman. But when it comes to my heart, it doesn’t seem to know how many years I’ve been around. It is still capable of loving, desiring, laughing, longing, yearning, rejoicing, mourning, agonizing, celebrating, supporting, and sympathizing. But with age, it does feel more fragile, bringing me to the need to protect it more, take fewer risks, and guard it more diligently.

So, what do I do? Should I keep looking for love, or shall I cradle my heart and keep her safe? Maybe she doesn’t have osteoporosis after all. Perhaps she has not become brittle with age. Could it be that she is becoming wiser, more discerning, and smarter?

Who knows? One can always hope!

A String of Pearls – It’s a Southern Thing!

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My fascination with pearls began in 2001 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My wonderful surgeon, Dr. Simpson, a lovely young woman, was wearing a strand of pearls when I first met her in her office to talk to her about a tender place in my left breast. After discovering that the offender and source of my discomfort was breast cancer, I placed my present and my future into her capable and expert hands as we headed down the road to survival together.

Her pearls made a distinct impression on me. I remember seeing her prior to my lumpectomy as I was being prepared to go into surgery. The pearls graced her neckline underneath her scrubs. I assumed that she wore them in the operating room, but that is something that I guess I’ll never know. On every subsequent visit to see her following my surgery and for several years afterward, she always had on her string of pearls. To me, they were her trademark, and a visible sign of the wonderful doctor that she was.

I wanted some pearls for myself. After recovering from my breast surgery, I saved my money, and when I thought I had enough, I visited a local jewelry store to see what I could find. As it turned out, the store was going out of business, and everything was 50% off. I saw the pearls that I wanted, and with the sale price, I could afford them. They went home with me that day.

I treasured my string of pearls. I wore them on special occasions, always so very careful to take care of them and place them back into their velvet-lined box when I took them off. I didn’t have much in the way of expensive jewelry at the time, so they became exactly what they were to me, a treasure.

Over the years, I wore them less and less. When I was divorced six years ago, I made sure that they were safely in my possession in a little portable safe that held my keepsakes and important papers. I hardly thought about them once the divorce was final and I was off on my own, rebuilding my life and concentrating on other matters.

Then, this morning in a weekly sharing and prayer group that I am a member of, I opened up to my friends my feelings of being off-center, not on solid ground emotionally and spiritually, and feeling the need to be better grounded in my life and in my faith. The past few months, following my 70th birthday, I have felt off-balance and unstable in many aspects of my life. The ladies in my group all offered bits of advice which I accepted and appreciated. One, however, said something that hit home with me.

“You need to put on that smile, some bright lipstick, a string of pearls, and get out there,” she said. “It’s a southern thing, you know,” she added with an exaggerated southern drawl.

“Well, I’m not sure about the lipstick, but I can surely smile. And I have a gorgeous string of pearls that I can put on,” I replied. “I think that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

I went home from the meeting, pulled out my safe and opened it, taking out the little jewelry box with the pearls inside. As I dressed for work, I clasped the string of pearls around my neck, and with a smile, admired myself in my mirror. I may be 70 years old, but I have my smile and my pearls. What more do I need today? Nothing! I was ready to go to work!

It was amazing how that little string of pearls lifted my spirits and brightened my outlook on my life today.

I think they are going to become part of my life from now on instead of returning to their place in my safe. My pearls need to go out into the world with me as we venture into the realm of being 70 and beyond.

I wonder how they will look with my Star Wars T-shirt and blue jeans!

Senior Citizen Exercise Class – Yes, I’m In It!!

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Every Tuesday and Friday morning, the recreation center gym in the town where I live is lined with chairs for a free Senior Citizen Exercise Class. My friend, Anne, talked and nudged and encouraged me for months, maybe even a year or longer, to meet her there to exercise with her.

I had enough excuses not to go stashed in my arsenal to last a lifetime, or at least what I thought I had left of my lifetime, but she was persistent. Finally, last fall I told her I’d go. But on one condition – she would meet me there and show me what to do. I was NOT going to walk into that gym by myself, not knowing anyone. Being the introvert that I am, it is very difficult for me to go into a new environment where everybody is a stranger or where I don’t understand the ropes of what is expected of me. Anne agreed to my demands, and told me she would look for me the following Tuesday. She assured me that it would be lots of fun, that we would be on the back row, and that nobody would care if I made mistakes in learning the exercise routines.

So, I went. When I entered the gym, Anne was looking for me and caught my attention. My God! There must have been close to 100 people in the room, all milling around and talking – some were walking laps – while waiting for the instructor to arrive. Anne had gotten there early, as I would learn that she always does, to claim a row of chairs on the back row for her and her buddies. If I hadn’t spotted her, I would have turned around and walked out, from the sheer numbers of strange old people I saw, all of official “senior citizen” age, with an abundance of white hair.

Anne introduced me to a handful of women who had staked their claim near us. I was soon to find out that the chairs were primarily there as place holders. Occasionally an exercise would require sitting or holding on for balance, but mostly their purpose was to hold water bottles and keep us (or me, mostly, as my new buddies were soon to learn!) from running into each other during an exercise routine. I liked these women immediately, and they seemed to be happy that I had joined their little tribe at the back of the gym.

I’ve been going to exercise class now for 9 months. I’ve just about learned all of the routines to the groovy songs that our instructor selected for us. It’s my kind of music – a lot of 60’s rock n roll, with a bit of a more modern mix that has a good beat stirred into the pot. I still turn the wrong way from time to time, forget what I’m supposed to do next, and kick the wrong leg out in front of me – hence, another purpose for the chairs. They keep me from running into my neighbor and doing bodily harm to anyone. I have a really good time, and nobody seems to care that I head in the wrong direction a few times each week!

Along with overcoming my shyness, I have met some remarkable women who I probably would not have met if it weren’t for Tuesday and Friday mornings. While the class is co-ed, and there are a number of men who exercise with us, the majority is female, women who are concerned about their health, eager to ward off old-age as long as they can, and who want life to stay active, interesting, and fun!

They say that growing older is only for the very strong and brave. I agree with the statement, but have to add that growing older is also for those of us who want to be really alive, to experience new adventures, meet new friends, and share our life stories.

Exercise class is one of the best things that has come my way in quite awhile! Thank you, Anne, for never letting up with that prod to get me there!

Over The Moon This Morning With My New Toy!

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That’s where I am now. I am the proud new owner of a Fitbit, and I am now counting my steps and tracking other life activities, even my sleep patterns. I’ve had it for five days now. This thing is amazing! It knows more about me than I know about myself! This little wrist device fascinates me, as well as inspires me to keep moving. I’ve been a walker for years – I’ve just never paid much attention to all the stuff the Fitbit does for me. It’s a new toy, I know, but it’s fun!

I fooled it this morning, however. While on my morning walk, I ventured into a subdivision I haven’t visited before. It turned out to be very hilly, and I found myself huffing and puffing, plodding and panting up a very long and steep hill. As I reached the top and was catching my breath while my thigh muscles screamed at me, my Fitbit vibrated to alert me to something. I thought I might have a text message from someone (another thing I was delighted to find out that this wrist band could do), or maybe had over-exerted myself. Instead, I saw that I had earned some kind of marathon badge for climbing 22 flights of steps! That was some hill I’d just pulled, as I turned to look back at where I had been. I was impressed with my climb, and was also amused that I tricked my Fitbit!

I’ll be climbing real stairs this afternoon when I go to work on the third floor of the campus building where the library is housed. That will be enough stair-climbing for one day for this girl.

As I think about my osteopenia and osteoporosis, I feel like it doesn’t have a chance against Jennie and her new Fitbit! This, along with my new nutritional plan, is bound to strengthen both my bones and my muscles.

Now, to work on my brain! I need to get started on my next book, write more in this blog and keep the gears in my head running smoothly. Now, that’s a real challenge!

 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Candy Counter

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It’s been a month since I received my osteoporosis diagnosis. During this month I have done more research on bones, calcium, trace minerals, nutrition, and healthy living than I ever would have dreamed possible. I have learned A LOT and have experienced a very strange phenomenon along the way.

Accompanying my diagnosis was a red highlighted line on the lab report sheet that my doctor handed to me. It indicated that I was a tiny bit low on vitamin D. My doctor recommended that I boost up my daily dosage of this essential vitamin, which I did. Along with this, I also began taking a “bone booster” combination of calcium, vitamins, and strontium. I was feeling pretty good about my attack on this disorder (I refuse to call it a disease).

As the poster girl for cookies and chocolate of all kinds, I have enjoyed more than my share of sweets over the years. Hand me a bag of peanut butter cups, and I am out of control. I’ll eat the whole bag! Don’t let me pass a table of Girl Scout Cookies! I’ll buy a couple of boxes, and finish them off in a day! And cake icing! Don’t get me started on that! I’d much rather eat the icing than the cake. It’s pathetic! Even though over the years I have eaten a pretty healthy diet, this has been my downfall. Chocolate – oh my! I have once stated that I would eat sawdust if it was drizzled with chocolate. Knowing that all this sugar wasn’t good for me, I would do my best to curb my cravings and make up for it by eating nutritional foods to complement my sweet cravings.

For several years I even gave up sweets for Lent, only to stuff all of the chocolate eggs I could get my hands on as soon as I woke up on Easter morning. Knowing that I was defeating the purpose of what true sacrifice and fasting was about during this holy season, I gave up on this habit, feeling like I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons, and went to another practice during the Lenten season.

But back to my current situation. About a week after beginning swallowing my new assortment of pills, I was walking down the cookie and candy aisle at the grocery store. I stopped to browse the chocolate selection, and was not tempted. What??? I didn’t want any! As I stood there looking at all the chocolate, I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything sweet for almost a week. And the odd thing was that I didn’t want it! I finished my shopping, puzzling over this discovery and wondering what was going on inside of me. What had happened to Jennie, the cookie monster? Where had she gone?

Back at home, I went to my computer and did a quick search on all of the vitamins and supplements I was now ingesting. To my surprise, I read on a website about healthy eating for cancer patients that sufficient amounts of Vitamin D sometimes curb the desire for sugar. This is especially important for people fighting cancer, because cancer cells thrive on sugar. AHA! That must be it! Reading further, and checking it out on a few more sources, I was convinced that this was what I was experiencing. Whatever the reason, I was delighted.

It has been a month since I have put anything with added sugar into my mouth. Mostly. And really not on purpose. It just happened. I know that there is sugar hidden in a lot of the food products that we eat, and I haven’t gone to the extreme to exclude everything that has a little sugar in it. But my sugar consumption has gone ‘way, ‘way down. I am trying my best to follow the advice of a doctor I went to many years ago when I had gained a little weight and didn’t want to keep up the good work of stockpiling fat onto my body. She recommended that I limit my sugar intake (from refined sugar – not fruits) to a maximum of 15 grams per day. I think that this guideline will work for me now as it did then.

I am continuing my reading about nutrition and diet, as I marvel over this new adventure. I am seriously considering a vegan diet (with a few modifications) in my future. In the meantime, I am adding more fruit to my daily plate, enjoying tasting the sweetness of a cantaloupe, orange, apple, or prune, and marveling at how wonderful they taste!

Stay tuned as I wander this strange new Highway 70 that is now my life. I think there are more sights to see and experiences in store for me.

I plan to head down this road without a box of cookies in my hand!