The Great Brain

Once upon a time, I irritated and offended a friend by referring to people in their mid-30s as "middle-aged." (At the time, we were in our mid- to late 30s.) Later I apologized and conceded that, since life expectancy for women in the US was now at 78+, people in their mid-30s technically weren't at the halfway point. Since that little brouhaha, however, some years have passed, and I think there's no denying that, once you're in your 40s, 50s, and 60s, you're "middle-aged," if not even gathering speed on the downhill slope.

 Where are the brakes on these things??? [Photo by  Max Kramer  on  Unsplash

Where are the brakes on these things??? [Photo by Max Kramer on Unsplash

As a fellow downhill skier, my interest in the aging process has grown, especially when my kids say to me impatiently, "You already asked me that!" or my Alzheimer's-afflicted mother-in-law asks me for the fourth time in an afternoon what grade the kids are in now.

Anyone who has ever searched for a word, or forgotten a name seconds after meeting someone, or needed to be reminded of a memory that everyone else seems to share and swears you were present at, will be interested in what I've learned about the aging--and the aging brain in particular.

For starters, I love brain books such as Oliver Sacks wrote, stuffed with anecdotes of weird things that go wrong with people's brains. But as I've aged, I've become more interested in what can be done about the things that go wrong, which is where this book comes in:

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Author Doidge takes just about any brain condition and talks about how new learnings in brain plasticity have led to new, powerful therapies. Once your brain is broken, in whatever area, it doesn't have to stay broken. No matter your age or how long ago the breakdown happened. The brain has the marvelous ability to reroute functions around non-functional areas. This includes brains damaged by injury, disease, aging. Doidge tells amazing stories about stroke victims, blind people, autistic children, people with cerebral palsy, you name it. And he talks about people just plain getting older and noticing their processing speeds and memory aren't what they used to be. There are therapies, folks! We no longer have to ride off into the mental sunset when the horse turns that direction--not without putting up a fight, at least, and getting the horse to detour for a while longer. Seriously, it's impossible to read this book without wanting to send copies to everyone you know with whatever condition.

But since I'm aging and have been thinking a lot about my mother-in-law's dementia and my father-in-law's cognitive impairment, I was most interested at the moment in the aging brain stuff. About memory Doidge writes,

A major reason memory loss occurs as we age is that we have trouble registering new events in our nervous systems, because processing speed slows down, so that the accuracy, strength and sharpness with which we perceive declines. If you can't register something clearly, you won't be able to remember it well (loc 1479).

How to remedy this? With learning. With focused concentration, as when we were younger and had to learn everything. Basically, by middle age, you spend your days doing things you've been doing for years, if not decades: your job, your household tasks, driving, reading and talking in the same old language. Nothing new under the sun. You're replaying mastered skills, even while the systems that allowed you to master them in the first place go slowly downhill (see picture of skier, above). This is why, when adults between 60-87 participated in an "auditory memory program" that trained them on exercises for processing sound, they turned their memory clocks back 10+ years. But even if you can't afford or don't have access to fancy therapies, we can do homegrown therapies of our own. Doidge suggests:

  • studying a musical instrument;
  • playing board games;
  • reading;
  • dancing;
  • exercise, like walking or cycling;
  • picking up any new skill that requires intense focus because of its unfamiliarity.

Brain researcher John Medina echoes these recommendations in his new book

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while adding some interesting suggestions:

  • engage in conversation/debate with someone whose point of view does not agree with your own (!!! How happy that there seem to be plenty of opportunities nowadays, if we could work up the courage);
  • put off retirement because total retirement = brain death;
  • get some sleep;
  • and don't just read, but read 3.5 hours a day! (I'd like to know how that can be managed if you're also still working, but I suppose if you replaced TV with reading, you'd come close.)

Neither book talked diet, but I'm guessing the same foods that prolong our general physical health certainly wouldn't damage our brains. You know--ye olde fruits and vegetables.

Now that you've read this post, you've completed 5 minutes of your 3.5 hours of reading, so you'd better hurry off and get to the rest of it. We'll see you later at dance class.