I’ve been really thinking a lot about the two articles I read lately — the first Offensive Play – Football, dogfighting, and brain damage, by Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker, and the second The Magnificent Minnesota Nun Brains by Ken Korczak.
They are both really good reads, and I also plan to read Aging with Grace by David Snowdon, which talks in greater detail about the Nun Study and what they learned about how you keep your brain and cognition intact, even in the face of considerable damage.
A bunch of things can be done — living a structured life with like-minded people, keeping a positive attitude, not fretting over material things, tending to your spiritual well-being, and (perhaps most significant to me, these days) keeping a daily journal where you mindfully and deliberately keep track of your daily life and critique yourself to improve where you can.
This matters tremendously to me, because after reading the Malcom Gladwell piece, I got to thinking about my childhood, how rough-and-tumble it was, how many times I got hit on the head in the course of playing, and how many times I was dizzy or woozy or out of it, after falling or colliding with something/someone.
Excerpted from the Gladwell piece:
But what sidelined the U.N.C. player, the first time around, was an accidental and seemingly innocuous elbow, and none of the blows he suffered that day would have been flagged by a referee as illegal. Most important, though, is what Guskiewicz found when he reviewed all the data for the lineman on that first day in training camp. He didn’t just suffer those four big blows. He was hit in the head thirty-one times that day. What seems to have caused his concussion, in other words, was his cumulative exposure. And why was the second concussion—in the game at Utah—so much more serious than the first? It’s not because that hit to the side of the head was especially dramatic; it was that it came after the 76-g blow in warmup, which, in turn, followed the concussion in August, which was itself the consequence of the thirty prior hits that day, and the hits the day before that, and the day before that, and on and on, perhaps back to his high-school playing days.
This is a crucial point. Much of the attention in the football world, in the past few years, has been on concussions—on diagnosing, managing, and preventing them—and on figuring out how many concussions a player can have before he should call it quits. But a football player’s real issue isn’t simply with repetitive concussive trauma. It is, as the concussion specialist Robert Cantu argues, with repetitive subconcussive trauma. It’s not just the handful of big hits that matter. It’s lots of little hits, too.
That’s why, Cantu says, so many of the ex-players who have been given a diagnosis of C.T.E. were linemen: line play lends itself to lots of little hits. The HITS data suggest that, in an average football season, a lineman could get struck in the head a thousand times, which means that a ten-year N.F.L. veteran, when you bring in his college and high-school playing days, could well have been hit in the head eighteen thousand times: that’s thousands of jarring blows that shake the brain from front to back and side to side, stretching and weakening and tearing the connections among nerve cells, and making the brain increasingly vulnerable to long-term damage. People with C.T.E., Cantu says, “aren’t necessarily people with a high, recognized concussion history. But they are individuals who collided heads on every play—repetitively doing this, year after year, under levels that were tolerable for them to continue to play.”
The bold parts are the ones that apply to me especially. Because in the course of my life I have had a ton of little hits. Too many to count, really. All those ballgames, the football, the lacrosse, the baseball, the soccer… all those times when I got clocked or had my bell rung or just plain fell and smacked my head… even the times when I didn’t smack my head, but had my head snap back as a result of a fall or a hit or a collision… It’s crazy, thinking back, and I can see how all those impacts of my childhood could easily have added up to a weakened network of connections, which made me more susceptible to more serious effects, long after I quit playing rough sports.
Perhaps my history of impacts explains why I could be in relatively minor car accidents, but be so tremendously impacted by them — unable to understand what people were saying to me, unable to initiate conversations with the police (that would have cleared my record of inaccurate info that the cops entered on the report, in order to cut the guy in the other car a break) and thus kept my insurance costs lower — unable to function adequately in my jobs after the accidents, so that I literally had to leave and find other pastures.
Maybe that’s why one of the accidents I was in affected me so profoundly, but it didn’t affect the other person who was in the car with me. If my neural connections had been compromised over the course of 18 years of rough play and impacts, while the other person in the car led a relatively sheltered life that was not as sports-oriented (while I was out on the field, slamming into people and things in various games, they were sitting on the sidelines, playing the flute in the band), it would make sense that the effect of double impacts — front-end and rear-end collisions — would be greater with me.
Of course, there are a ton of different variables, but if repeated exposure to head impacts plays a role, then it makes sense that I’d be more susceptible than I ever guessed I was.
Anyway, everybody’s brain is different, and I understand that self-diagnosing and trying to explain my own situation from inside my addled head can introduce problems with logic and deduction, so I could be wrong about it. I don’t think I am, but I’ve been wrong plenty of times before. The main thing I’m concerned with, these days, is how to avoid the kinds of problems other people with repeated head trauma have encountered, namely, the dementia and cognitive degeneration that can develop over time. Like everyone (who is lucky enough to be alive), I am getting older, and like many folks, I’m concerned about cognitive decline.
So, my thoughts turn to the Mankato, MN nuns, the School Sisters of Notre Dame. I think about this bit of info, in particular:
Amazingly, some of the nuns maintained clear healthy minds even though their brains showed the scars and deterioration characteristic of severe brain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and strokes.
In the case of the brain of one Sister Mary, who died well into her 100s, scientists were astounded to find large-scale deterioration of brain tissue, and even lesions associated with strokes and progressive Alzheimer’s Disease — yet she remained clear-headed and lucid to the end of her life.
Sister Mary’s brain apparently defeated the effects of these brain diseases by countering them with an unusually rich growth of interconnection between her brain cells, or neurons. Her extra dendrites and axons were able to bypass damaged areas of her brain to keep her lucid and healthy.
I need to do what Sister Mary did. Okay, I’m not a nun, and believe you me, there is no way I’d qualify to join them, even if I wanted to. Fundamental human differences (like anatomy and philosophy) preclude that. But if Sister Mary could manage to remain clear-headed and lucid despite large-scale deterioration of her brain tissue — including strokes and Alzheimer’s — then heck, why can’t I?
Seriously — the nuns are human, and I’m human. Perhaps Sister Mary didn’t grow up climbing and jumping and falling and fighting and tackling and being tackled, but if she was able to keep her act together despite some seriously damaging conditions, then why can’t I?
I may have led the kind of life that’s laid the groundwork for some serious cognitive degeneration as I continue to age, but by God, if there’s a way I can avoid going down the long dark tunnel to diaper-clad dementia and the total loss of everything I hold dear that makes me actually human, then I’m all in.
So, here’s my plan:
- Stay positive (no matter what) – no matter how dismal things may seem, life has a funny way of turning around, sometime or another.
- Introduce structure and order to my life – make sure I plan my days, and then stick with the plan (like they tell me in the Give Back Orlando material)
- Cultivate more discipline to maintain that structure – because the stuff won’t get done by just listing it on a page
- Do what I can to surround myself with like-minded people – friends are important, and I haven’t done enough over the years to cultivate those connections. I know this should change, and so I’ll do that.
- Journal, journal, and journal some more – It worked for Jefferson, Edision, Faraday, Isaac Newton, and Einstein, and it can work for me.
The great thing about journaling, from where I’m sitting, is that it enables me to do all of the above items. It lets me work on my attitude, tweak my outlook, and get in touch with what is holding me back. It helps me introduce structure to my life, not only by committing to do it daily, but also by journaling in a way that is as much planning as it is reflection. I can use my journal to track my progress and develop my discipline — in ways that are appropriate to me. And it can help me work through the things that keep me from others. In my journal, I have a safe place where I can uncork at will, and no one is harmed. Too often, I have just said what I felt to people who either could not hear it, or who didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of my intensity. Using a journal lets me say what I need to say and vent, without the danger of harming others. That’s important. Especially for me. My past is littered not only with subconcussive head traumas, but also with tons of relationships that could not withstand the pressure of my outbursts and lack of control.
So, onward and upward. I have access to information about people who managed to overcome some pretty serious threats to their sanity and cognitive health. I have access to accounts of their lives and scientific investigations into what worked for them. I can avail myself of their teachings and lessons and use them to my benefit — so that I can live out my days in good health and soundness of mind. I have a plan, and I’m determined to stick with it.