Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Switching Over Mid-Career

Up until I moved to Durham, North Carolina I was left handed when it came to handwriting.  I changed over to writing right handed when I turned 40 because Essential Tremor in my hands made it harder and harder with the left.

Now it is equally hard with either hand and I avoid handwriting altogether.

Actually, on the inventory of handedness I was barely (1st decile) left-handed overall, meaning very close to the line between left and right handedness in the population overall.

I always played sports right-handed and for many associated activities had no preference such as batting in baseball, swinging a tennis racquet or shooting a basketball.

In batting it was an advantage and sometimes in tennis but it was often a curse in basketball.

In a couple of other areas, I was always purely right-handed such as turning a key to unlock a door and holding a cup while drinking, so when I switched to writing with that hand, it didn't feel entirely foreign.

The Mormon culture in which I was raised is what is called Christian “restorationist,” contrasted with “reformationist” Protestant, but Mormons still borrowed many things from the Catholic Church, such as the Franciscan tradition of sending missionaries out in pairs.

Growing up, I never heard using your left hand described as the “the mark of the beast” as Catholic schoolteachers apparently often did, but perhaps to be safe, Mormons stipulate that you always take sacrament with the right hand.

Obviously, those who translated the Bible had a right-hand bias (smile.)

So in rebellion I guess, no matter the decile, I have identified as left-handed and taken pride when lefties excel far beyond their proportion of the population such as being elected President.

Actually, while lifting tiny sacrament cups of water from a tray that had been purposely overfilled by annoying 12-year-old Deacons was one of the first times others witnessed my Essential Tremor.

Statistically, in Durham, where I still live in retirement, there are likely  2800 people with Essential Tremor but more than 30,000 who are left handed.

The genes related to ET have not yet been identified, although because both my daughter and I manifest it at such a young age, I plan to make sure my brain makes it to a related research center when I pass on.

Click here for an overview of research beginning in 1861 into handedness published on the fascinating website Brain Pickings, a website my daughter turned me onto.

Human beings have been leaving written records about tremors for thousands of years and the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon (129-216 A.D.), who served Roman emperors also cared for patients at the time with ET.

Genes are also thought to play a minor role because studies of identical twins show they often favor different hands.  But humans are the only species to show a strong bias in handedness.

Last year researchers published that they have identified a variant in the gene Pcsk6 (depicted in the image in this blog) associated with handedness, but they haven’t been able to fully explain the mystery of handedness yet because the genes play such a small role.

No data is available on how many lefties have ET such as me, but while people with the condition almost always have it on both sides, it is asymmetrical, meaning studies show it to be more severe in the non-dominant hand.

Being barely left-handed probably made that a toss-up for me.  I know from experience though that having ET and being left-handed definitely made it a challenge to learn to take off, fly and land an airplane, something I learned just enough to do after I retired five years ago.

Lefties learn at a young age to reverse instructions given when being taught by right handers so it isn’t uncommon for them to confuse left and right when giving or taking directions, or in the case of an airplane throttle, the different reactions anticipated by pushing in vs. pulling out.

ET is often confused with Parkinson’s which is a much, much more serious cousin.  ET occurs during the initiation of movement while Parkinson’s occurs when a limb is at rest.

Researchers now know that ET is progressive, not benign, as once characterized (no it isn’t why I retired.)

They both worsen over time, but Parkinson’s is degenerative.  ET is mostly embarrassing unless your occupation requires steady hands, e.g. a surgeon or nurse, or occupations that simply require filling out a lot of forms that must be read by other people.

I lost any ability to fill out forms legibly somewhere in my 20s.

Treatments for ET are either medication or invasive surgery like probes that are inserted into your brain to break that feedback loop or ultra sound which is like burning a hole to do the same thing.

The first approach fixes both sides, the second, so far, only one.

Alcohol also works great (smile.)  But not too surprising, doctors don’t recommend that.

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