Thursday, January 15, 2009

Homonym Aphasia and Other Signs of Age

Elizabeth Zelvin

Fellow mystery writer Cheryl Solimini and I, along with at least a handful of others I’ve located on the e-lists DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise, share a mysterious malady. Each of us, when the symptoms first appeared, thought we were the only one. And now Cheryl has given it a name: homonym aphasia. When it strikes, formerly perfect spellers and error-free keyboarders start thinking one homonym but typing another. We who prided ourselves on never needing Spell Check or proofreading suddenly render “two” for “too,” “wear” for “where,” and “their” for “they’re.” In addition to perfect homonyms, we screw up dissimilar words that share a syllable or even just a letter or two: “restaurant” for “residence,” “will” for “with.” This neurological stumble began for me when I turned sixty. One day, I hadn’t misspelled a word since 1955, when I flubbed a word in the New York City round of the National Spelling Bee. Blow out enough candles to set off a smoke alarm, and all of a sudden I have to double check everything that flies off my fingers onto the screen.

Those who don’t have it don’t understand. “I never could keep those little words straight,” they say. “I do that all the time.” That’s not it at all. Among the diagnostic criteria for homonym aphasia is a history of impeccable spelling and grammar and crackerjack typing. Like me, Cheryl was a spelling champ and has been a professional editor. If you always screwed up “its” and “it’s,” you’re not one of us. If you never did, but now you do and it embarrasses the hell out of you, you are.

Cheryl has proposed an organization to offer support and seek funding for a cure. She calls it the World Homonym Aphasia Treatment Society for Incomprehensible Spelling, or WHATSIS. Sign me up; I’m proud to be a chapter mental—uh, I mean a charter member.

Analogous to homonym aphasia is that far more widespread ailment of the aging, failing memory retrieval. Once again, the diagnostic criteria include not having had a lousy memory in the first place. Does anybody remember (no wordplay intended) the Fifties TV game show Name That Tune? I’ve always had an ear for music, and until my early forties, my completely reliable memory could always come up with a work and composer in the case of classical music or a song title and performer for popular music. That changed in my early forties. My first conscious experience of what many call CRS (for “can’t remember s**t”) occurred during a period when I listened to a country music radio station as I drove to work every day. They had a contest in which they’d plan (see? homonym aphasia: I meant “play”) a miniscule snatch of a song—just a couple of notes—and listeners had to name the song and artist. I recognized the songs all right. But I couldn’t recall the names.

Experts on aging often seem to believe that age-related memory loss is a delusion of the middle aged. They claim that if I keep my mind active and reduce my stress, my memory will be just find (did it again! I meant “fine”). These folks—who are probably under forty themselves—make me grind my teeth. Have I kept my mind active? Let’s see: in the past ten years I have gone from computer-illiterate online technophobe to online therapist and trainer of clinicians in online practice skills, written at least four novels and hundreds of articles if you include blog posts, stayed afloat in a society in which maintenance tasks like paying the bills and organizing one’s calendar have become increasingly complex and time-consuming—need I go on? And what was the rest of the prescription? Reduce stress? I run three miles a day. I sometimes meditate. I have a happy marriage, supportive friends, and delightful grandchildren. I eat healthy. I regularly leave the city for the peaceful country. I have terrific conflict resolution skills. I don't hold grudges. If stress reduction were completely within my power, I’d be blissfully stress-free.

Not that I think the mental acuity I used to have would bounce back if I could zap all my stress. I think it’s neurological. Besides, the source of stress today is not primarily within the individual. Oh, I can tell you how to get rid of it. One, fix the economy....

23 comments:

Auntie Knickers said...

I read a book recently that I'm pretty sure was written by a contemporary of mine and yours. This obviously intelligent and well-educated woman used the phrase "tax right-off." I think she's a candidate for WHATSIS!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

That's write!

Susan D said...

Ooo, lots of fodder for comment:

1. I hear you, sister. I'm always typing "the the" instead of "to the" and saying things like "window" in place of "chair". Fortunately, my cat is the only audience for the spoken substitutions, and she's not particular.

2. CRS? I kind of prefer calling it a CRAFT moment. Can't Remember A F-ing Thing.

3. My theory is....maybe my memory was always this bad; I've just forgotten it.

4. Uh.... what the heck was 4?

Susan D said...

Ooops. I just realised I confessed on line to talking to my cat.

Anonymous said...

Homonym aphasia. Not only am I not the only one that's doing this, but there's a name for it. Whew!

Just this morning I typed "than" instead of "then" How mortifying.

It's good to know I'm not alone. Thanks, Liz.

Janet K.

Patricia Stoltey said...

My goodness, what a relief to have a support group. I'd become quite concerned about the quirky things happening between my brain and my fingers since I'm a good speller and a crackerjack typist. My brain and my mouth aren't always in sync either. I tried to tell myself it was lack of focus, but aging (which I just typed as "again") is surely the culprit. I'm 66.

Sandra Parshall said...

What does it say about my poor brain that I have *always* had these problems? Born old, I guess. (sigh)I also have the world's lousiest sense of direction, and it's hard to imagine it getting any worse.

Julia Buckley said...

Liz,
I am a firm believer in the fact that the mind is not a permanently reliable friend, no matter how healthy we try to keep our bodies. First of all, I saw my mother-in-law decline and die within just a few years, thanks to Alzheimer's Disease.

But my own mother, who is bilingual, bright as can be, and has a vocabulary that exceeds mine (in both languages!) also began noticing weird things in her forties. For one thing, we kids used to joke about the fact that her brain always reversed the words "matches" and "stamps." And when she was nervous about something, like flying on a plane, she would replace some of her words with the word "plane." It wasn't just a matter of scattered concentration--her mind was betraying her. Now, in her 70s, she finds that she will want to say a sentence (she's always been quick and verbally gifted), and absolutely none of the words will come to her. She is paralyzed.

I think that I have inherited much of this. My sons now joke about the fact that I will say sentences that make no sense whatsoever. I've always been a champion speller, but above there I had to change the word "if" to "of," because I typed it incorrectly. So, yes to the HE, but I think the problem is more complex, and that the homonyms are the tip of the iceberg.

Sheila Connolly said...

Ooh, if we join can we get pins? Just think of all the great things we could say. And what a conversation-starter.

Doesn't everybody talk to cats? It's only when they start to answer that you should seek help.

Sandra Parshall said...

Uh, Sheila -- my cats *do* answer. Are you telling me that's not normal?

Simon Galleon said...

Nice way to put up an organization for those who has homonym aphasia.

research paper

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks to all who've jumped in and confessed (here and on DorothyL). The term "homonym aphasia" was invented by Cheryl Solimini last week. The fact that it isn't a "real word" seems to be one of those facts that nobody can remember, like the difference between "eligible" and "nominated" for the Agatha awards.

Cheryl Kaye Tardif, suspense author said...

Oh my God! I have homonym aphasia two! Their! I've said it.

I also suffer from kyebaord lysdexia.

Oh, to bee young again...

Cheryl Kaye Tardif
www.cherylktardif.com

C. Solimini said...

Thank hue, Liz, for spreading the word! Though I've specialized in health articles over the years, you won't find Homonym Aphasia in any issue of JAMA. We who endure HA! (a joke of aging) have suffered in silence and mispellings for weigh two long! But as with any debilitating condition, once you've identified the problem, your on you're weigh to a solution!

Want to join the E-Race for a Cure? (HA!-ers are always erasing anyway.)
Contact Liz or me (cheryl@chesol.com), and we'll try too decipher yore message as best wee can.

Cheryl

P.S. Any typo in this comment who (was) unintentionally deliberate...

April Harrington, Hillsboro OR said...

Unfortunately for me, this has been a steady (damn, almost just wrote "study") malady for me for about 2 years now. And i'm turning 35 tomorrow. I have been having issues with remembering in general, as names of people i could recall instantly just a few years ago seem to escape me now.. and i will spend all afternoon racking my brain desperately for that name, just to show myself that i'm having a brainfart and nothing more serious. But like the article said, i thought i was alone in this... however i still feel rather alarmed in that i'm 34, whereas the author said something about noticing it at around 60 years of age...

sootfoot5 said...

I turned 50 two weeks ago and I've noticed this problem for about 7 years now. I have been diagnosed with mild right sided brain damage due to years of untreated adrenal problems. At age 43 my brain MRI was that of a 70 year old, so brain aging seems right. The problem is that proof reading doesn't help because we thought it was right the first time so we, or at least I do, think it is right the second, and spell check thinks it is correct too. We're just screwed.

Anonymous said...

I am thankful I am not alone. In 1st grade I was competing against 6th graders in spelling contests and knew which proper homonym to use when I was 5 (I started reading when I was 3). I was concerned enough to see a doc but didn't want to be laughed at. It just started for me about 3 weeks ago. When I type, the wrong word flies off my finger tips. I am only 35 but this has never happened to me before. I lead a fairly stress free life with an accounting job I love after finishing my Master's a few years ago with a promising career ahead of me. Thank you for raising awareness.

Anonymous said...

I recently tried to convince my doctor that I must have a tumour in the vicinity of either Broca's or Wernicke's area due to my recently acquired spelling and homonym-distinction deficiencies. Sadly, it appears that I have only started the descent into old age... but I'm not even 30! At least I now have a catchy name for my new affliction so thank you.

Anonymous said...

I am 66 and suffering from homonymic aphasia for the past two months. It's pretty mild now, about one mistake a week (that I catch, at least). I am glad not to be the only one. Is it an amusing slippage or something more serious?

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sootfoot5 said...

My comment may at first seem self-serving, but please read it all so I can explain.

I have written a short story on the etherbooks app titled "The Long Runway to Paris" about a woman with a progressive disease. I hint that she suffers from MS but I don't come out and say it. One of her issues is that she loses her words and it upsets her how people stare at her. In fact, "it was the eyes that did her in" meaning all the people who looked at her curiously when she suddenly couldn't speak. Feeling like a wreck on the highway that everyone had to stare at as they drove by, she closed her millinery shop and closeted herself at home to wither away.

Did I say wither? Poor word choice. Because the woman, while physically deteriorating more quickly, retains a life of happiness through her world of imagination.

My goal with the story was to give people a different perspective of those suffering with those types of diseases where they appear to be "locked in". We don't know what they are thinking. Yes, it is probably frustrating to them, but isn't it possible that much of their frustrations are thing having to do with how we force them to do things they'd simply rather not do?

This story came about for me because I had pondered what would happen to me if I had MS. At one time my neurologist thought it was a possibility. Now we know (think - what do doctors know anyway?) that I have cerebral ischemia/ encepelopathy (sp?) (mild brain damage damn it!) from having Addison's disease being untreated for many years - my brain basically got fried.

But the point I wanted to make to this group (sorry to be so long winded and thank you for those who are still with me!) is if you are interested in a story about someone with this type of problem, it is on the etherbooks app - you have to get it through android or an apple product. It costs a $1 and how I an tell you it is not self serving is that I have to have about 100 people read it before I get a nickle and so far only 2 people have read it, so PLEASE, there is no way I'm going to make any money off you folks reading it! But if anyone doesn't have the $1, let me
know and I'll just email it to you.

But the really important thing I wanted to say is that doing things like writing stories and other things that are creative has been so invigorating and helped me get past the things that I can no longer do. So what if I suddenly can't speak? I can now bead award winning bracelets? So what if I lose my words and forget where I put things and can't be in groups larger than 4 because I can't follow the conversation? I am teaching myself how to sew, I am writing a children's book and I guess you might say I'm taking the long runway to Paris...

Thanks for listening.

sootfoot5 said...

Heck, even if you HAVE the dollar (or 69 pence in Great Britain), I will send the story to you if you'd like to read it. While I'd like people to read the story on the site, that wasn't the reason I posted about this.

One other point is that the people here on this forum all seem to be fighters or at least willing to deal with their issues. The woman in my story wasn't as strong in that way yet she found a way to deal.

Isn't that what we all need to do - find our own way to deal?

Anonymous said...

Right after I typed a sentence with "wood" rather than "would," I googled this frustrating phenomena and found your post. This gibberish started after I turned 50 and YES, it is driving me crazy!! Former spelling bee queen turned idiot. I'm falling apart but am reassured that it's not just me. I don't like this business of aging one bit...