Doc: When is ‘zoning out’ something more?

Keith Roach
To Your Health

Dear Dr. Roach: At age 69, I still “zone out” briefly, losing time and location. In grade school I was always told that I daydreamed too much, and at one point was deemed “rather slow” on my report card. I repeated 6th grade. I once missed a flight when my name was called, as I was “zoned out.” There are too many examples to note, but I’m wondering if I am a victim of absence seizures. My research through a website indicates that this is possible. Should I speak with my PCP about this? Is it dangerous? Should I just cope with it? (As an aside, the “rather slow” comment is humorous now, as I am a member of MENSA!)

J.S.

Dear J.S.: It is possible for children with partial complex seizures (there are several types of seizures that can cause staring spells, not just child absence epilepsy) to be misdiagnosed with inattention, but to get the diagnosis at age 69 is outside of my experience — 90 percent of children diagnosed with CAE are seizure-free 15 years after diagnosis, so you would be a remarkable case for several reasons.

“Zoning out” doesn’t require a pathologic diagnosis. There may be no abnormalities in your brain at all, anatomically or physiologically. Still, people with epilepsy are at all levels of function, from very low to very high.

I’d recommend that you talk to your primary doctor about it. He or she might recommend an evaluation with a neurologist, likely to include an EEG.

Dear Dr. Roach: As a tall, lanky teenager, I had knee pain, which came and went. At age 21, I worked at a summer camp in Wyoming and did a fair amount of horseback riding. That fall I was called up for the draft during the Korean War. During the physical exam, they discovered I had a torn medial meniscus and gave me a 4F draft rating. I am now 86, and have had no knee troubles in decades. Why?

W.T.

Dear W.T.: It’s possible you had a different problem, such as Osgood-Schlatter disease, often seen in athletically active adolescents, and which typically goes away. It also may be that you did have a meniscal tear, which got better on its own.

It’s a good reminder that not every problem needs urgent treatment, and also that physicians’ ability to make predictions isn’t perfect.

Email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.