MAD DOG: Getting Dumber, or Just Older?

I had a birthday the other day. Exactly which day it was and how old I turned are none of your business. Let's just say that I'm thankful I have an older brother -- it makes me feel good to know I'm not that old.

Birthdays have a way of making you contemplate your mortality, consider the ravages of time, and worry about why you're not as good at doing all those things your failing memory pretends you used to be good at. But like death, taxes, and Cher's appointment with the plastic surgeon, getting older is a certainty. Of course, it still beats the alternative. So as long as we're all getting older -- and no matter whether you're two or 72 you are -- we might as well know what we're getting ourselves into.

Why do we age?

It's the natural order of the universe. Caterpillars turn into butterflies. Trees start out as seeds, grow tall, then die, nourishing the forest floor so other plants can grow. Even stars grow old, turning into novas so PBS can have a name for their scientific adventure series. Besides, if we didn't age we'd all be walking embryos which means Ted Koppel's toupee would look even stupider than it does now.

But does our body have to go through all these changes?

Many of these change are biologically important. As we get older we add body fat and grow more hair, which keeps us warmer during the winter. As women mature their bodies become better suited for childbirth. Men's bodies change too, which is why their wives and children get so embarrassed when Dad wears the same shirts he wore when he was three sizes smaller.

So what's the reason for my eyesight getting worse?

This is nature's way of helping people stay married -- it keeps them from seeing each other's aging, wrinkling, hairier, fatter body so well.

When I was younger I could have sex all night, but not anymore. Is this normal?

Yes. As we get older our memory gets worse and we fill the gaps with scenes from Jon Holmes movies.

It's not my memory. Honest. The older I get the more I ... the more I ... .oh I forget.

Don't worry, everyone forgets things. It's important to differentiate between normal forgetfulness, like misplacing your keys or discovering that you're wearing the eyeglasses you've just spent an hour searching for, and drawing a blank when asked your name. Keep in mind that your brain's only so big. Over the years it fills up with things like "I before E except after C" and the theme from "Laverne and Shirley." Before you know it your brain's so clogged even Roto-Rooter can't help. Then one day, without thinking, you put the chorus of that insipid new 'N Sync song in one ear and -- voila! -- your mother's name falls out the other.

What can I do to stop that?

Quit listening to 'N Synch.

Anything else?

Have your mother's name tattooed on your arm instead of "Born to Raise Venture Capital."

Does everyone have memory problems?

They sure do. Not long ago the State Department forgot where they left some top secret laptop computers. The other day the Energy Department lost two hard drives they keep in a suitcase in Los Alamos. Nothing too important, they just happen to contain the details of how to disarm all known nuclear devices. Remember when Bill Gates testified he doesn't remember what a web browser is? And President Clinton -- he can't even remember what is, is.

How do we remember things, anyway?

Scientists aren't sure. They think the neurons in the hippocampus somehow store our memories in three areas: immediate, short-term, and long-term.

Where's the hippocampus?

At Hippo University.

Is there a way to improve my memory?

You can get books with tips and tricks that might help. You can also exercise your brain by doing puzzles, reading, and keeping it active. Some people think taking gingko and vitamin E helps. While scientific studies haven't verified any of this, there's anecdotal proof that these products do help some people's memories. After all, the companies that put them out seem to remember to give their top executives big fat raises.

My grandmother lived to be 95 and she said the secret to a long life is eating healthy, not drinking alcohol, and not smoking. Is there any truth to this?

No. That only makes your life feel longer. Interminable is a better word.

How long can I expect to live?

If you keep asking questions like these you'll be lucky to see your next birthday.

What about the average person?

In the United States the average life expectancy is 70 years, which ranks it 24th in the world. At the bottom of the list is Sierra Leone where the average person can expect to live to be 25.9 years. At the top is Japan with 74.5.

Is that fair?

No, but neither is the fact that the cast members of "Friends" are each making $750,000 per episode and I'm lucky if I make enough from this column to supersize my dinner.

When was your birthday and how old were you?

Next subject.

More Mad Dog can be found online at:

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