Cheer for Old Brains

In my continuing trek to old age, it’s the specter of  my mind – my brain – giving out that is most worrying. And judging from the number of cutesy emails on aging I get, I’m not alone. It’s probably because we tend to think it’s our minds that define us. As much as I believe I am more than the rattling that takes place in my head from morning to night, I operate on that premise as well. “I think therefore I am.”  Or is it “I am therefore I think”? So I tend to snarf up all the articles on brain research and cognitive aspects of aging that I run across. That’s a lot and most of it is not cheerful. But this week I ran into two events that cheered me up considerably.

For the past nine years, the University of Arizona College of Science has hosted a  series of public lectures on pressing scientific issues of the day. One year the theme was Cosmic Origins, another on the scientific basis of Climate Change. This year the topic is The Evolving Brain. So for the next five Monday evenings I’m off to learn more about how my brain began and where it might be heading. This week I learned that the tiny but surprisingly complex brain of the fruit fly is astonishingly similar in its rudimentary structure to my own. What do you suppose a fruit fly worries about?

It was fascinating. But what truly excited me was the event itself: more than 3,000 people, most of whom had earned their graying hair, came out on a mild January evening  and stood in line to fill up Centennial Hall and listen to a science professor expound on brain research. All those brains may be slowing down, but they’re not done evolving.

Then came an article by Benedict Carey in the New York Times that posited a new take on the data regarding cognitive decline with age. The learning models using word associations, he suggests, might favor younger adults. Educated older people know a lot more words and so they have to sift through a lot more vocabulary to find the best match. This may take longer, but it doesn’t mean the thinking part is inferior. Or older people may organize information differently than young people. Scientists make a distinction between “fluid”  and “crystallized” intelligence. “Fluid” includes short term memory and analytical reasoning, while “crystallized” is more accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise. I know where I would test better.

Carey concludes his article with, “It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much.”

I feel better now. But I still wish I could give my brain a good vacuuming and sprucing up, get rid of all those useless bits of information (why am I using dwindling brain cells to remember our post office box number from the 1940’s?) and toxic attitudes that have built up over the years. And while I’m at it, I’d replace some of those old dead neurons in my substantia nigra. That and a new head of hair, I’d be good for another 75 years.

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Creative Commons License
Coming of Age by Rosemary Rawson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

2 comments on “Cheer for Old Brains

  1. Wendy Berry says:

    You cheered my day Rosemary!

  2. Donna Romaniuk says:

    I look forward to your blogs.

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