I was startled when I learned that Bruce Willis was stepping back from acting due to his recent aphasia diagnosis. This New York Times article headline describes this affliction as “stealing your ability to communicate.”
My reaction was informed by my own experience with aphasia over a decade ago. Shortly after the birth of our first child, I found myself, on occasion, saying a word I didn’t intend to. For example, instead of saying “dog,” I would say “cat.” It was an issue of word retrieval. Imagine your brain as a filing cabinet. “Dog” and “Cat” are two “files” next to each other and you pull the wrong one. You may have experienced this yourself. For example, have you ever called one child by the name of another?
My normally reserved doctor was unnerved when I reported this behavior at a physical and immediately scheduled me for a neurological consult and MRI of the brain. Fortunately, while a minor lesion was found, the neurologist chalked it up to a combination of lack of sleep and increased stress – rather than the result of an underlying neurological disease or brain trauma.
I still monitor my aphasia related gaffes, ensuring they are not increasing and that they continue to correlate with issues under my control – like sleep and stress.
Still the idea of losing my ability to communicate terrifies me. Words are my currency and my passion. They are both how I make a living and how I find meaning. To lose them would be devastating.
We don’t talk much about brain health and like my sporadic ventures into the gym, it is just another muscle that I too often neglect. Sure I read often and play the occasional game of bogle with my children but I am not as intentional with its fitness as I could be.
So recently, I thought it would be wise to sign up to the Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day newsletter. The first of which I received prior to writing this. In the welcome note, they also shared a tool they call Time-Traveler. It allows you to put in your birth year (or any year for that matter) and see what words were first used that year. It is an amazing snapshot in time. You can check it out for yourself here.
Consider these words all first written down in the year I was born; assault weapon, band-aid, butt-naked, data mining, green revolution, talk radio, urban legend, and perhaps most shockingly coronavirus. Any guess what year these are all from?
It’s earlier than you might expect, a sign that words can often be prescient.
We take words for granted, assuming that they have and always will exist and be accessible to us. But the reality is that they may not.
So a word to the wise, do something each day to take care of your brain. Here’s a brief list to get you started.