- Primary references are at the end
Each morning, I wake up feeling good: clear-headed, energetic, eager to learn, eager to think. I may not be poised to break new scientific or artistic ground—I never was—but my thinking seems as good as ever. Right?
It’s likely enough that I’m deceiving myself. Supposedly my brain is in the midst of a long, steady decline. The clues are obvious. My capacity to retrieve names is abysmal. Sometimes words escape me, at least for a while or until I fire up Google to trigger my retrieval system. I say trigger because, as often as not, I remember the word or name before Google has rescued me.
Conversations with friends are filled with anecdotes about mental lapses. Absentmindedness often heads the list. You walk into a room at a determined pace only to find that you’ve forgotten why you’re there. Then, as you leave, you generally remember. It’s hard not to speculate about the meaning of the lapse, hard not to think that you’ve lost a mental step or three. Any effort to ignore or minimize the lapses seems like denial. And there are lots of people to remind you of this weakness, some with amusement and some with worried faces.
Conversations with peers are filled with both humor and empathy about our decline. They provide a sense of relief in the sharing and a place to hide together. But even the humor reinforces the narrative of decline. The narrative is ever-present, popping up like some Skinnerian behavioral stimuli. I am declining. I am declining. Eventually you believe it—or you yield to a stark reality, a better way to put it.
Our adult children notice the lapses, too. Usually they are patient and sympathetic, as well-raised children should be. But that’s a mixed blessing, since most of us both appreciate and resist their kindness. Who wants them to focus on our weaknesses? I, for one, would prefer a keen focus on the stupendous and miraculous accomplishments and adventures that have marked my life. I wouldn’t even mind an emphasis on my bold and romantic spirit, my heroic nature. Instead, they take control of our narrative by telling our story through the sympathy in their eyes.
Beyond friends and family, there is the general culture. You’d have to travel to Antarctica to escape the media-driven warnings about dementia. If you don’t have it now, they say, it’s probably just around the corner. Here are the signs. Here is how you should eat, exercise, socialize to minimize dementia’s impending grip. It’s a plague and you are unlikely to escape—soon or eventually.
But, as I say, I feel mentally alert almost all the time. What does that tell me? For one thing, it tells me that I am an individual person, neither a trend nor a statistical marker. My developmental course is my own. The later in life that I am clear-headed, for example, the more likely I am to keep my senses for a long time.
Current research debunks the idea that our brains grow duller and less able to learn as we age. For instance, the flexibility and growth potential of our minds (neuroplasticity)—our ability to learn and change–continues throughout our lives. This is accomplished by using different regions of the brain in old age.
Late in life, “unique new circuits and ways of thinking are produced using more connections to and from the advanced frontal lobes.” By continuously using our brains in different ways, new neurons are created through new learning. New connections and synapses keep on developing. In addition, both sides of the brain are utilized, whereas only one is primarily used in the younger adult. In other words, we literally create new ways of thinking through new brain structures.
OK. We have more and more sustained brain power than we have been led to think. But what about those lapses that are completely real? Are there ways to compensate? Yes. Simply put, we need external reminders in our life to trigger what we know.
Research shows that “…when the hints come from the environment, the difference in memory vanishes.” As a matter of fact, “In tasks that rely on external information, elderly do better. They are better in such perception and learning. While reliance on external cues becomes a pattern in the elderly, this doesn’t mean they are impaired when they don’t have these cues. Using the environment saves brain energy as a strategy in old age.”
One of the main reasons that the aging brain continues to function well is that it changes in a fundamental way by recruiting other parts of the brain. Unlike younger people, the elderly use both of their frontal lobes. By Using both sides of the brain gives us greater resources and greater connectivity between all of the brains “modules.” We then become better internal networkers, encouraging communication within the vast knowledge stores of our brains.
In other words, older people are much better at integrating their knowledge and mental abilities. This gives us perspective, an ability to see the big picture. Alert elderly people “understand many different patterns that appear in their sensory input—circumstances, ideas, and experiences. The older person’s superior ability to size up situations are then coupled with better social and emotional regulation–hallmarks of wisdom.”
The bottom line here is that I may not be deceiving myself too much. America’s youth-oriented culture has created a kind of panic in the elderly and the soon-to-be elderly. But Neurological evidence tells us that, for most of us, our brains keep renewing themselves. They are, therefore, active, agile, and resourceful—and will be for years to come. So why don’t we relax and enjoy the play of our minds?
When we think that we are clear-headed, we probably are. All those neurons and synapses are clicking away, making sure of the continued neuroplasticity in our brains. We don’t have to worry so much about the missing names and even the missing words because they are less of an omen than they are a simple condition that we can usually overcome by using environmental supports, like Google. When we think we have lots of perspective to share, we probably do.
And, with these conclusions, I may find myself not only clear-headed in the morning but also in good spirits.
I roamed pretty freely in the popularized literature of brain research, but the best references I found and the ones from which I quote throughout my paper are: