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Why does time go faster the older we get? - (3/2/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro 

Elmo came into the pharmacy breathlessly. The pharmacist said, "Elmo, I thought you were going to come in Monday for that special order. You're two days late!" teased the pharmacist. "I know," said Elmo, panting. "There's not enough time to do everything these days, even though I'm retired now. Why does time seem to go faster the older we get?" 

The easy answer is our perception of time. When you are one year old and your second birthday rolls around, you have just the one previous year from which to draw memories. Each year after that, your first year becomes a smaller fraction of your entire lifetime. When you are 20, your first year would be 1/20th of your entire life; at 50, your first year would be 1/50th of your life. Hence, when you are 60, memories of Mommy changing your poopy diaper or you spitting up on Uncle Bill are replaced by your college graduation, your third marriage, and the time you held up that bank.  

Albert Einstein knew about time. He knew so much that he declared it did not really exist as a constant. What is one hour on the surface of the earth is faster the higher you go. Specifically, for every foot above the ground you climb, your wristwatch would show that you aged about 90 billionths of a second faster over an 80-year lifetime. So, if you want to stay younger, don't buy that lofty penthouse house apartment. Or, if you own a house, sleep on the top floor to grab that billionth-of-a-second beauty rest. 

Certain drugs can distort time within the confines of your mind. Cocaine and amphetamines appear to speed up time; haloperidol and marijuana seem to slow down time. Amphetamine, a stimulant, will not let you sleep, which opens an 8-hour window in your day. Reports exist of people – high on bennies and unable to sleep – who have painted their entire house in one night! Note: The pharmacist does not condone using these medications to alter time. 

If you really want time to speed up a lot, fall into a coma. A 46-year-old Polish railroad worker named Jan Grzebski was a 19-year coma survivor. In 1998, he lapsed into a coma after what was initially thought to be a workplace accident but was later attributed to a 2-inch brain tumor. He was able to survive his cancer and eventually emerged from his sleep in 2006. When he woke up, he was amazed by the abundance of food, the advent of cell phones and the internet, and the fall of communism.  

In 2012, 32-year-old Sarah Thomson developed a blood clot in her brain. The condition led to the Brit being in a coma for 10 days. When she awoke, she thought it was 1998. She believed that her favorite band, the Spice Girls, was still together. She did not know that Michael Jackson had died in 2009. More concerning was that she recognized neither her husband nor her kids. When her children came into her hospital room, Thomson expected her eldest to be a toddler instead of the 14-year-old he came to be. Not only did she have no memory of her two youngest children, but she also mistakenly thought her husband worked at the hospital. She eventually readjusted her internal clock and returned to normal. 

The bottom line? Time will chug along no matter how hard you try to slow it down. Mathematician Anthony G. Oettinger cleared up the time conundrum by saying, "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” The pharmacist said to Elmo, “Now, you can spend time figuring out what he meant.” 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press. 

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