We know that the prefrontal cortex is one of the areas most vulnerable to atrophy as we age and along with that comes problems with executive functions. That’s a big deal.
Executive functions include things like making plans, implementing strategies, following directions, monitoring progress and sustaining attention. It’s that ‘monitoring progress’ function I want to zoom in on today.
We constantly monitor ourselves to make sure we do things correctly. Is it ½ or ¼ teaspoon of turmeric in the recipe? Did I already put it in? For the most part, it’s an effortless process that keeps us moving in the direction we want to go, no matter what the task. We constantly monitor our actions to make sure that everything is ok. In essence, it’s our internal fact-checker.
Imagine, then, what it would be like if your fact-checker stopped working. You wouldn’t realize that you are putting the crackers in the freezer instead of the pantry where they belong, or that your doctor’s appointment is next week, not today.
I recently had two episodes where my fact-checker failed me.
The first came when I was preparing to drink my morning tea. My routine is to steep it (equal parts of mint and green tea leaves) the night before in a 1-pint pyrex measuring cup and then refrigerate it overnight.
(I suppose a little background would be helpful here. When I gave up drinking coffee with half & half and sugar about 10 months ago, I tried to switch to green tea because of its brain health effects. I didn’t like the taste, though, so I tried mixing it with mint tea leaves. That was better, but I was still craving sweetness. It occurred to me that it might taste better cold and so I tried refrigerating it overnight. That worked! Finally, to pump up the brain health benefits, I started adding ½ teaspoon of a combination of equal parts turmeric, ginger, cumin and cinnamon with a little black pepper. Delish!)
Back to that fact-checking failure…
While getting my tea ready, I also brew Sally’s coffee. She continues to use sugar and half & half, and so not only do I put my mug out on the counter, but I put out her mug, the half & half container and the sugar bowl, as well.
As I do every day, I placed the sieve across the rim of my mug and poured the cold tea into it. But something wasn’t right. I had only poured about half the liquid when I noticed that the mug was full. How could that be? My mug holds two cups and I steep a little less than that in my measuring cup. It was impossible for it to be full with only about 1 cup of tea in it.
When I stepped away from the counter to think about what might have happened, I immediately saw what the problem was. Instead of placing the sieve across the rim of my mug, I had placed it across the rim of the sugar bowl which had been half-full of sugar at the time. That is why it only took 1 cup of tea to fill it to the top.
The second time my fact-checker failed me was after working out in our apartment building’s fitness center. My habit is to burn a few extra calories by walking up the three flights of stairs to the 4th floor instead of taking the elevator, which is what I did on this particular day.
Up the stairwell I went, exiting through the doorway to the hall, and making the left turn to get to our apartment which is just a few yards away. As I did so, I noticed on the right-hand wall a pair of large double doors with a sign that announced: Telecom Room.
“Huh,” I thought to myself, “I never noticed that before.”
I continued on down the hall to my apartment and inserted my key into the lock, but it didn’t open.
That was when I realized that our grape vine peace sign wreath wasn’t hanging on the door…and that I was standing in front of apartment 341 instead of 441…and that I had exited the stairwell on the 3rd floor instead of the 4th!
I could explain away both of these episodes. It would be easy to attribute my fact-checking error in the stairwell to being exhausted after a hard workout. I could argue that placing the sieve on the sugar bowl was the result of my still being half asleep early in the morning.
But I’m not going to explain them away. It’s true that in neither case was I at the top of my game nor was I hitting on all cylinders. But how you perform when you are not at your best can offer a glimpse of what is lurking below the surface. Although these might be isolated and infrequent incidents now, in another couple of years, with additional age-related prefrontal cortex atrophy, I might very well see a further decline in executive functioning and more fact-checking failures like these.
As always, it’s something to keep an eye on.