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Putting Age to a Test

A few days before the interview, I began to prepare.

“What’s the day of the week today,” I asked mentally while making morning tea. “What year is this? What country?”

I’ve encountered these questions before and expect to hear them again as a participant in a national aging study--basic cognition questions meant to measure mental nimbleness.

On a memo pad, I jot five random words: chair, apple, yellow, letter, cottage.

With the pad flipped over, I repeat them mentally. How many will I recall in half an hour? (Go ahead. You might as well try it, too. Look again. How many of those five words will you remember when you put down the Sunday paper?)

Since 1998 my spouse and I have completed interviews and questionnaires in a study aimed at assessing the wellbeing of the nation’s aging citizens. We’ve submitted to blood tests and dexterity assessments to help researchers probe links between body and mind.

It was a lark when we started eighteen years ago—a contribution to research and social programs. We didn’t feel old back then. But now, advancing years bring advancing fears. I keep a wary watch for evidence of cognitive decline. The pressure builds as another assessment test approaches.

While chopping onions for a dinner soup, I substitute seven from 100 in my head. Then seven from 93. And seven from 86, and so on. It’s a bit obsessive, I’ll admit. But I encountered that mathematical challenge in a previous survey and it reduced me to quivering hopelessness. I want to avoid a repetition.

Still, I was nervous when the interviewer arrived at the front door on a weekday morning—a Portland area resident trained by the University of Michigan to administer the survey’s test of cognitive health. The process would take about 90 minutes and I could decline any question, she explained as we settled on the living room sofa.

I was ready for her questions about the date, the nation, the president’s name. At ease with a challenge to spell a five-letter word forward and backward –try it yourself with “beach” or ”chair.” No, you can’t look at the word as you spell.

Then came the flip chart with not five, but ten words. I was asked to read each word aloud as she flipped the pages. Ten simple, unrelated words. Then she put the folder away. Five minutes later I could recall only six. Five minutes more and I came up with eight. Apparently I’d started breathing again.

Next up were challenges of three-dimensional geometric design that required putting pencil to paper. Not so easy as it sounds.

"The tests are meant to be difficult"

“Most of the tests we do are meant to be difficult,” says Lindsay Ryan, an assistant researcher for the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study funded by the National Institute of Aging.

I called researcher Ryan at the University of Michigan a few days after the interview. When I decided to write about the experience, I wanted more information about this process I’ve been involved with for 18 years. It was my first direct contact with researchers based in Ann Arbor.

“A lot of people are motivated to do the best they can and we want that,” Ryan said. “Keep in mind that little losses are normal. It starts at age 20.”

Age 20! We get just two decades to build a brain before it begins the slide into decline. No wonder performance anxiety festers at the approach of every survey.

Since 1998, I’ve been studied more than 20 times by University of Michigan researchers, Ryan told me when I called. That history makes me very valuable to the research, she said. My records include ten 90-minute interviews by phone or at my home. The other input has come from questionnaires sent on the Internet or in the mail. At least twice, I’ve given blood.

It was not a problem, Ryan said, for her to give me information about my own participation in the study. But that’s where the openness ended. Identities of the study’s 20,000 participants are strictly guarded, she said. Guidelines do not permit her to reveal the number of Lane County or Oregon seniors who are part of that pool along with my spouse and me.

Every six years new participants age 50 and above are recruited to maintain the base. Information for volunteers is available online at

Keys to Feeling Younger than we Are

So what are academicians learning from this research that is sponsored by the National Institutes of Aging and the Social Security Administration?

Well, for one thing, they’ve discovered that the fountain of youth is bubbling in our own heads. Most of us over age 50 really do believe that 60 is the new 50, they report. We also think 70 is the new 60. Basically, whatever age we are, we maintain that we feel ten years younger, researchers found.

And having friends--not feeling lonely--can take another year or two off one’s age perception, results suggest. Good health keeps us young as well. People who say their health is excellent feel about 12 years younger than people the same age who say their health is poor.

Interesting, engaging information, all this “stay young” focus. but my responses apparently buck the trend. I’ve stubbornly maintained for years that I feel precisely the age I am. Blame MS magazine for my contrarian position.

I was in my 30s in 1974 when MS founder Gloria Steinem reached the benchmark of 40 and rebuffed a journalist who declared that she looked younger than her age.

“This is what 40 looks like,” Steinem asserted in response. “We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?”

I heard her words as a challenge that dared me to adopt a path of acceptance and honesty about whatever age I am. Now, Steinem is 83 and I’m 74—both of us still appreciating the years and experiences we’ve been granted.

Then again, the contentment with life and age that I feel may also owe a nod to the benefits of wine.

Another study of responses from 20,000 volunteers in the University of Michigan program determined that couples who drink wine together report greater satisfaction with their relationships. Salud.

But first—what about those five words we started with? What do you remember? Hint: None of them was “wine.”

Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer. Contact her at

Not the Retiring Type

by Carolyn Kortge

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