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Is It Age or MS?

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Recently, Jeopardy uber-champion James Holzhauer surprised by donating to a nonprofit battling the type of cancer that affects show host Alex Trebek.

Holzhauer, 34, was epic master of Jeopardy for weeks on end, winning $2,462,216, just shy of Ken Jennings' record $2,520,700. He donated to a fundraiser in his boyhood hometown of Naperville, Illinois. Event participant Ann Zediker decided to email him. "My gut told me it was the right thing to do. It couldn't hurt." (There's an example for the would-be activists out there.)

Holzhauer's rein lasted 32 games before he was beaten by another Chicagoan, 27-year-old university librarian Emma Boettcher. (Holzhauer is actually a professional gambler from Vegas, but Naperville's a Chicago burb = he's ours.) Boettcher lasted four episodes. It's tough out there.

The day I tried out for the show, about 70 bookish characters turned up. They didn't get a lot of sun, these people. The people from the show gave us three or four Jeopardy-type quizzes, flashed across a couple of TV screens while we sat at long tables, scrawling down our answers. The nerves were there in that room. It's a different ballgame actually committing answers to the page instead of thinking them in your head. We finished the timed tests, then went through the answers together, correcting ourselves. The entire room groaned and laughed, not a little awkwardly. Going through the answers aloud really was a fun idea for preparing a roomful of people for rejections.

A stage manager from the show told us a couple of anecdotes about Alex, which was the honey, and then told us the cut-off point for right and wrong answers: people with this many right can stay for the next round (and use the fake buzzers!), but all of the rest... Wa Wah Waaah. It was a pretty thin margin between making it and not. It didn't take many mistakes. When they announced the number, there were a lot of forehead slaps and moans in the 'You've got to be kidding me' vein.

Let me tell you, in the lobby where we waited for the elevators, all the good-natured masks had dried up and blown away like dust. Here were the people who prided themselves as the smart kids in the room. They were ones used to getting all the answers right, the high SAT people. They were Those kids ? but not today they weren't. Now, they were the fallen of the Battle of Wounded Ego. Like all defeated peoples, there was seething, there was moaning, there were conspiracies. They were hissing back and forth about this answer not being fair, and that rule was so stupid. And I when I entered the room, forget it. By then I couldn't handle a pencil, so to allow for accessibility I sat off to one side at the front of the room with the list of questions, while a guy wrote down my answers. (Can't you hear them: "He probably doesn't even need that wheelchair?ooh, here he comes now.") The way they acted in the lobby, I figured there are seven a half-dozen daggers sticking out of my back. Oh well. I smirked as I rolled into the crowded elevator.

Although I continued to train ("train" means watching Jeopardy every day, with Pop-Tarts and stuff) I never did make another audition. I think that Trebek once recommended doing so before your mid-30s. Something about losing a step by then, either with your brain or your thumb (the clicker-finger). By now I'm well past my Jeopardy sell-by date. Neither of my clicker-fingers work anymore, and the ball of fat that sits on top of my shoulders? Well, it's interesting you brought that up...

37 was the year. The first gray hairs in a red beard, at 37. The first deep lines across the forehead, at 37. And at 37 I noticed the first slowing in my thinking. Nothing serious, nothing to complain about. It were the ciphering. I was good with numbers, not genius or anything, but they were fun to me. I was good at up to three or four digits, multiplication, division, whatever. I liked doing it. Road trips I would pass figuring the minute and second we would reach the town ahead. That kind of thing was fun to me. But at 37, the digits started coming a little slower, just a tad, but I noticed. It was normal aging. Alex would say I'd hit my Jeopardy sell-by date. So, do the Jeopardy at 36 when you've got the most knowledge, because you're about to turn into a pumpkinhead.

Now 17 years later, math is not so much. I still do it in my head, but I pull out the calculator for the important stuff like at tax time. My wife and friends stopped asking me for instant calculations years ago. What are you going to do? I wasn't getting paid for it anyway.

The thing I've got going on lately is with conversation. I stick on words, like a gumball that doesn't want to come out. Jumbled, awkward sentences tumble out of my mouth. I was always quick with the wisecracks. No more. In fact I'm kind of out of the snappy comebacks game altogether. For the fast party games I sit on the sidelines. I'm getting forgetful: 'what were that lady's instructions on the phone yesterday?' or 'I can't believe I forgot to take care of (insert your own errand/bill/phonecall here).' I mean just the simplest things that make me question where my head is at.

So then comes the question, is it age or MS? Although my MS is considered severe, I've been lucky to avoid cog fog, mental haziness, cognitive impairment. About half of those with MS develop cognitive systems.

When I do forget something and feel like a boob, there's always this underlying question. And I'm not alone. According to others I talk to, it is a common concern among those with MS.

Last week I brought this up with my neurologist. I asked at the end of our time together, after we'd been talking for about a half hour. When I don't come with a list of questions, with copies for everyone in the room, I have to shoehorn my questions in at the end. He patted my hand, mumbled something reassuring ('cause he's a mumbler) and said see you in six months. On the way home my wife told me I did not make myself clear in what I wanted. I pay attention to it until my next appointment.

So now I'm coming for you, Trebek. I'm taking another shot. If I can remember when tryouts are.


  1. SCI-Nurse's Avatar
    It is very common to develop some degree of cognitive dysfunction with MS over the long run. How much will differ from person to person, and generally is directly related to the location of large plaques in the brain. If you neurologist is not assessing this with you on a regular basis, ask to be referred to a neuropsychologist who can assess, and suggest compensation and remediation techniques to help manage this. A speech pathologist may also be a good option, as they are very involved in remediation of cognitive deficits. You might want to find a different neurologist who is more responsive to your needs, and has a less defeatist attitude toward the management of your MS.

  2. Spitzbub's Avatar
    Thanks, will act on your suggestions. My neuro comes off poorly the way I wrote him. But he's turned a lot of things around for me so I'm going to bring up my concerns again on our next visit.
  3. Tetracyclone's Avatar
    Before my SCI, around age 50, I began to notice cognitive decline, particularly with memory for nouns. This can occur for many reasons. I suffered some mild TBIs pre SCI, a modest one during my SCI accident when I drifted in and out of consciousness all day, and 2 more post SCI.

    I remember at age 45 having much difficulty remembering how to speak Spanish after around 5 pm, which showed me that language skills decline when we are tired. They also decline when we are sick. I do not doubt that medications have played a role in short-term memory challenges and problems remembering nouns, in particular.

    Now I am 69 and my health has been improving over the last 2 years. Memory is somewhat better, though still imperfect. This tells me that if a significant part of my memory dysfunction is due to dementia it is a slow moving problem and likely I will die before it cripples my life, so to speak. Or not- no one can say.

    My point is merely that some of your cognitive decline can likely be seen as 'normal'. Getting old with MS can be a mild annoyance or a major bit c h, but to some degree you can think of yourself as 'normal'. Why not?
  4. Spitzbub's Avatar
    Thanks for such a well-reasoned comment. I agree, and I typically shrug off most of the age-related carping I hear from others my age because hell, I've been in a chair for how many decades now? The only concern I'd have is if these are MS-related symptoms that could be checked – which are the kind that KLD pointed out above. I'm keeping an eye on it. Hope I hear from you again, thanks for reading.