The Aging Brain

Like almost everyone else I know around my age, remembering things is not as easy as it used to be. That refers more to recent stuff in my life than “remembrances of things past” (to quote Proust). Nothing unusual about that. But what is somewhat “peculiar” is the fact that when it comes to another important part of my mentalizing, there is no diminution whatsoever: analysis and problem-solving. How come?

Let’s take memory first. There’s a common misconception that the progress of “memory” works as a parabola: slowly rising until our early Thirties, and then a slow decline for the rest of our life (for some, unfortunately, a faster decline in their Eighties and later). This is incorrect. In fact, we all undergo a massive form of “amnesia” around the age of eight (yes: 8) when the brain prunes most of our memories, probably to “make room” for the huge memory needs as we enter puberty and into the main learning period of our lives through the ensuing decade or so. That’s why we don’t remember anything from our toddler past (before 3 years old) – all those memories have been mind-expunged, as new neurons and synapses form.

Second, there’s the question: memory of what? I’m terrible at remembering names of people, even though I recognize the faces of people I haven’t seen in decades. If I see any word in print even only once, I never forget how it’s spelled; but I can’t very well recall events that I attended only a few years ago. Speaking of “years”, numbers of almost any sort (dates, how much something cost, etc.) – they’re all totally “sticky” in my brain. In short, there’s no one overall memory ability.

Why would that be? Simply put, because there is no single place in our brain where “memory” resides. Rather, memories are spread over different parts of our brain, each one close to a different sensory “module”. So that if we went to a restaurant and had a great meal, the memory of that would be evinced (recalled) from the olfactory or taste sections of our brain. And as we are well aware, people have variably stronger and weaker senses. For instance, I am very strong on “music” – once I hear a tune, I never forget it. But please don’t ask me what the song (or classical piece) is called. In fact, in most people “musical memory” is incredibly strong – one of the last things to go through the latter stages of dementia.

So, if one cognitive ability – memory – has many different “parts”, it shouldn’t be very surprising that other mental abilities are also differential in their “stickiness”. Whereas I have increasing difficulty remembering what I ate yesterday evening, I can analyze problems just as quickly and sharply as in the past. Indeed, maybe even better than in the past. Why? That leads to another aspect of the brain.

There is an old adage: the wise person knows how much s/he doesn’t know. But the converse is true too: none of us knows how much we really know. That means that buried deep in our mind is a huge amount of innate knowledge based on our life experience. It lies there dormant until something in our life demands a response to which this or that piece of “forgotten” information or knowledge is called for – and up it pops! Our brain is a massive and (usually) terrific archivist. And the longer we live, the more experience/info we accumulate, so that we are armed with more ammunition to resolve problems or analyze challenging issues. And that stuff doesn’t seem to decline much with age. For anyone even remotely active mentally, the amount of new information surpasses by far the info our brain forgets from lack of use.

That’s why one of the three most important things we should be doing as we age is to keep the brain “challenged” with new types of information: learning a new language, honing a new skill, getting educated in an unfamiliar subject area. (Now you’re asking: what are the other two important things?  Good nutrition; and aerobic, physical exercise, such as fast walking, swimming etc.).

In short, the brain isn’t so much a single, three-pound lump of flesh as it is a jigsaw puzzle of many pieces that make up a complete picture. You can lose a piece here and there and still see what the whole is all about. Obviously, if you lost the whole upper right-hand quarter of the jigsaw, you might not be able to see what was there at all. Luckily for us, however, the brain is different in an important way: if we lose some neurons or even small sections of the “mind”, it is able to find “detours” and pick up that “lost” ability (at least in part) through other parts of the brain. So, if our olfactory sense and memory starts failing, we might still be able to recall that delightful restaurant dinner through the “taste” or “sight” sections of our brain. And keeping the brain “challenged” throughout “retirement” ensures that it will be able to construct “detours” more effectively.

The famous actress Bette Davis once said: “Growing old is not for sissies!” And yet she herself had an indomitable spirit and stayed “sharp” to her dying day (obviously – that’s one of the pithiest comments about aging you will ever read!); she continued acting in film and on television until shortly before her death. The aging brain can continue to do many wonderful things for us despite some partial breakdowns here and there. Just keep it as oiled as you can.

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