The Aging Intellect

Cognitive aging and how to manage it.

A Month of Memory Lapses: Week 2 Record—"Where's My Wallet?"

Stress level impairs judgment and concentration

Off and on I have not been well during the past week. According my doctor the problem has to do with a bad reaction to the topical anesthetic administered by the dermatologist during the removal of a minor skin cancer. The dermatologist stoutly denies this allegation, so it looks as though I will never know for sure why I felt so poorly most of the last 7 days. 

What I do know is that after having the skin cancer excised I did not feel particularly well for about a week. The problem was worsened slightly by having weekend guests of my daughter and 18-year old James, her college bound son. That would have been OK but their staying with us for three days meant that I had to move my stuff out of the guest bedroom/closets/bath into the upstairs bath/study, both of which I share with my wife and are messy.

The problem of having visitors was worsened by James’ own medical problems. He had four impacted wisdom teeth removed on the Friday morning just before driving up to visit his grandparents. Since there was no one to care for him at home this seemed to be the best choice for everyone.

Well, not quite everyone. His siblings were up in Vermont at summer camp and his dad was teaching and so was not involved in the decision. Since I was also teaching and preoccupied with organizing a summer school class for a dozen students, I have to admit that I did not fully grasp the magnitude of what their visit would cost me, especially if I were not able to bring my “A game” to help care for James. The only dissenter was Jo, James step-grandmother, who thought their spending the weekend with us right after dental surgery was a bad idea, period. 

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She reminded me of this periodically while James suffered and needed our constant care during the weekend. Among other activities this meant buying a half dozen small bags of peas and constantly crushing ice to help James keep the swelling down. With 3 of us taking turns ministering to James, and the presence of a large screen TV for him to watch if he wished, and his computer and smart phone to stay in touch with his friends, James did well. His jaw did not swell too much and he was grateful for the attention. 

At some point during the weekend I misplaced my wallet. And I didn’t find it until the following Thursday. In my defense, I was pretty foggy after James and his mother left Sunday afternoon and was focused on how I would get through my classes on Monday and Wednesday. Jo drove me in Monday afternoon and I managed to stagger through 2 hours of a 3-hour class before calling it a day. Wednesday was a little better, but I was still bringing my “B game” to class.

It’s amazing how long you can go without a wallet before you begin to miss it. I have two credit cards memorized so I can use them for buying things on line or elsewhere. But when Jo sent me to Trader Joe’s to buy a dozen containers of yogurt and I had to rob my parking meter quarters to purchase them, I recognized that I had better find the wallet or face up to the reality that I have lost it and order a billfold full of new credit cards.

As soon as I came home I started the search. Within 15 minutes I found the wallet. It was on the bookcase on top of a scale I use to weigh letters and packages. What a relief. I don’t know how many times I had looked through the bookcase earlier in the week without seeing it.

That insight that I lacked focus was interesting to me. Because I was not 100% and my attention was fragmented by not feeling well, having my stuff scattered all over the house as well as caring for James and his mother; it is not surprising that I couldn’t concentrate well enough to recover the wallet.

I have continued to list all memory lapses as long as they last more than a few seconds. Below is a record of memory lapses during Week 2.

Date                 Memory Lapse                 Comment     Sleep/Stress        Stress Level

July 8                Feel vaguely ill                      2                              Low1; Mild-2; Mod-3; Hi-4; Very Hi-5

9                      Short class; poor prep            3                   2

10                    Exhausted; hard to focus       2                   2

11                    Mediocre class                       2                   2

12                    Trader Joe’s; found wallet     1                   1

13                    Good                                     1                   1

14                    Good                                     1                   1

15                     Good                                    1                   1                                             

Total 13 (4)

 On the basis of this 2nd week’s chart, I learned two things. First, I have to be much more aware of the present and potential new stresses in my life. I should have listened to my wife when my daughter decided it would be a good idea to bring James up to Concord so that we could help care for him. Had I not been ill and preoccupied with teaching, it might have been a good idea.

The second thing I have learned again is that any stress, whether from physical or psychological circumstances, impairs concentration and memory. My personal experience has been verified many times by others. I wonder how many others there are who, like me, fail to learn from the wisdom of others. 

Douglas Hyde Powell, Ed.D., A.B.P.P., is a Clinical Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and a Consultant in Psychology at McLean Hospital.

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