Aging: One Long Downhill Slide?

A few days ago, a blogger friend wrote that she was discouraged about getting older. She posted this:

I’m kicking, running and screaming from the downhill slide. How did/are you all handling the realities of aging? What’s your secret weapon (person, place or thing)?

The blogger got a lot of input from her discussion group. Here were some of the suggestions:

          • Exercise
          • Spanx
          • Meditation
          • Good food
          • A wardrobe update
          • Change to more age-appropriate makeup style
          • Have a positive outlook

All good ideas, but here was mine:

      • Why do you consider aging a downhill slide?

Life is what you make it. If you see yourself as cranky, crotchety, wrinkled and sexless, you probably are, in which case, it’s time for an attitude make-over. I mean, I get the thing about death and all, but if you’re sixty, you might have 25-30 (or even more) good years left. That’s a gift! That’s as long as it took to work your career, or create a fully-formed batch of offspring.

Hey, I’m not in denial about the crappy side of getting old, but a bad attitude about aging can hurt you. According to Barbara Strauch in her wonderful book, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, seniors who were tested for memory did better when they were first given positive information about aging. The group that was told negative things? They didn’t do as well.

You can dispute the study, but you’ve lived long enough to know that attitudes and words matter. What happens if parents repeatedly tell a child she’s stupid, incompetent, clumsy, or bad? What will happen to that kid? Why is it different for us?

Margaret Gullette, a researcher at Brandeis University, says we’re victims of the “ideology of decline.” We’ve allowed ourselves to be “aged by culture,” and taught to think of ourselves in an “age graded” way, based on the sense that “the body fails at midlife and this bodily failure matters more than anything else,” while the positive aspects of aging, such as maturity, competence, and compassion, are not seen as age-related. According to Gullette,

(This) ideology works to enclose us in self doubt, embarrassment, shame, humiliation, despair…By learning to concentrate on an ‘aging’ body, the twentieth century midlife subject learns how isolated and helpless he or she is.

If we’re allowing ourselves to be “aged by culture,” maybe we should look to a different culture. My good friend, Julie Mahoney, told me that the Japanese have no word for menopause. The closest they come is konenki. Literally translated, ko means “renewal and regeneration,” nen means “year” or “years,” and ki means “season” or “energy.” Isn’t that beautiful?

So, I challenge you to counter our hair-tearing assumptions about aging. If you need scientific backup,  I wrote here about your incredible aging brain.

And here is Isabella Rossellini with her “Surely you jest” attitude about aging.

Finally, here’s how my Mom got over on those who would devalue her due to her age and diminutive stature.

Okay, I’ll stop with the links or you’ll never get anything done. Have a great weekend.

Your Amazing, Aging Brain

This is the last of four posts about all the cool things going on in your aging brain.

Ten years ago, Sister Bernadette died of a massive heart attack at the age of eighty-five, after a lifetime of academic achievement and renowned intellect. Right up to the end, she aced any cognitive test the researchers could throw at her. She had arranged to donate her brain to science, and when they took a look under the hood (sorry, couldn’t resist!) what they saw changed brain science forever.

In spite of her brilliance, Sister B was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. 

After this discovery, the concept of “cognitive reserve” gained traction. It seems you might be able to build up your brain so that, if and when you get dementia, its effects will be diminished or delayed until you have time to die of something else. If you do die of dementia, having good CR might result in a shorter period of decline. Steeper, but shorter. Once it hits, it’s over quickly. Preferable, when you think about it.

How can you build up cognitive reserve? Exercise, for one.

Two more factors for staving off dementia are the attainment of more education rather than less, and the performance of a more complex occupation throughout one’s life (i.e. one dealing with humans) rather than less (i.e. repetitive motion on an assembly line).  Did you ever think that by encouraging our kids to continue into higher education, we might be saving them from dementia later in life?

Another way to build up resistance to dementia is to encourage your brain to regenerate. Remember, years ago, we were told that brain cells were finite in number; they could only die off, not grow? Wrong.

It’s been proven beyond doubt that the brain regenerates itself, giving birth to new brain cells in the area responsible for memory and cognitive ability.

Again, the best way to get your brain to create those new cells is exercise. Yep. You needed incentive for that New Year’s resolution? There you go. Cognitive reserve and fresh brain cells. But there are several other things you can do to encourage your brain to get generating.

    • Focus on a task that’s highly complex (like writing these last four columns. Dang.)
    • Focus on a specific goal (like your NY resolutions.)

Together, building cognitive reserve and birthing new brain cells would seem to give you a significant hedge against deterioration in the brain at any age, but wait! There’s more. Keeping your brain toned might be as pleasant and simple as:

    • Hanging out with friends, and
    • Hearing positive things about aging. (No, I did not pay them to say this, but yes, it seems as if this might be a good reason to visit Any Shiny Thing.)

According to Barbara Strauch, from whose book I’m quoting, “There’s increasing evidence that being with other humans helps tone our brains’ dendrites.”

But not just any humans. You want to be around NICE humans, because mirror neurons in our brains make emotions contagious! We not only feel the joy and pain of others, we adopt their moods. And, according to researcher Barbara Levy, our moods are surprisingly important to our brains. Levy found that the memories of older people improved after simply seeing positive words about aging.

So if you needed motivation for changes in 2013, I hope I’ve provided it.

And I know Christmas is over, but here’s a little gift anyway: Marc and Angel’s 7 Things You Will Smile About When You’re Older.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up BrainThanks a million to Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, without which I would not have been able to share all this fantastic information. Believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface. Her book is fun, easy, enjoyable, and written in a conversational tone that makes you feel you’re following a friendly scientist through the halls of research, mouth agape in delight at all the new things you’re learning. I recommend it.

Next week, we’re going to take a break. Do something silly and simple. Maybe I’ll riff on family drama and how much I hate the holidays. Or I might just indulge my grandmotherly heart and post pix of my adorable grandbabies. Whatever we do, I wish you health and happiness. Happy New Year, my dear, funny, kind, happy, smart friends.

Grandma Will Save Civilization

This is the third of four posts celebrating the good news about the way the brain ages.

There’s something called the Grandmother Hypothesis, so named because researchers discovered that chimpanzees lived longer if they were part of a band that included elder females, who helped the mothers find and share food.

Of course, researchers speculate about the application of this hypothesis to humans. One benefit of having elders in the tribe is because at about age forty, people start getting really good at regulating their emotions. According to studies in 2003 and 2004 by MIT researcher Mara Mather:

Although the brain wants to focus on the negative (it’s a survival skill), the aging brain makes a deliberate effort to focus on the positive, which is actually harder. Studies show that emotions grow stronger, not weaker, as people age.

Mather theorizes this positive focus may be an evolutionary trait. When we’re young, we need cautionary knowledge so we focus on threats more, but at older age, we’ve accumulated so much of that cautionary knowledge that we view danger in a more complex fashion.

This ability may have evolved because it works well for the species in general. As we get older, we have more mixed emotions, allowing for a more nuanced response to the world. This slows us down, restricting impulsive acts, and that’s good for individual and group survival. Especially since our world is becoming so much more complicated.

Alice Walker (Flickr)Alice Walker hints of this in her essay, All Praises to the Pause.

I am convinced that in earlier times women during menopause drifted naturally to the edge of the village, constructed for themselves a very small hut, and with perhaps one animal for company – and one that didn’t talk! – gave themselves over to a time without form, without boundaries. They were fishing in deep waters, reflecting on a lifetime of activity and calling up, without consciously attempting to do so, knowledge that would mean survival and progression of the tribe.

More and more good news:

1. According to the Seattle Longitudinal study, our brains are awesome after forty. Seattle tracked the same 6000 people for forty years, finding that people reached their highest cognitive ability from age forty through seventy.  This was in four of six areas: vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation and inductive reasoning.

2. We’re also, in the new century, aging more slowly. Researcher Elizabeth Zelinsky found that her group at age seventy tested similar in cognitive ability to the historic levels of women in their mid-fifties.

3. Here’s another goody for you: There’s a substance called myelin, the fatty outer coating of the trillions of nerve fibers in the brain. The white matter acts like insulation on a wire and makes the connections work. Get this: the development of myelin in the brain area relating to language peaks from the 50s to the 60s (2001, Bartzokis). The insulation allows the neuron to recover faster after signals have been sent and get ready to send the next signal more quickly, giving brain cells what Bartzokis calls greater bandwidth. “As myelin increases, it builds connections that help us make sense of our surroundings.”

I was going to end with a wisecrack like I usually do, but I guess I’d rather get serious. We often feel unhappy about getting older, because we’re moving closer to the Great Beyond. Also, we’re inundated with messages from the media 24/7 saying we’re pointless if we’re not young. It’s easy to fall in line and drink the Kool-Aid.

But once you know about all the brain-benefits of age, you might talk about them more. You might celebrate the good news (“I’m more intuitive at this age. Really!”) and spread it around. It might become common wisdom, and attitudes might begin to change in this youth-obsessed country.  Wouldn’t that be the gift that keeps on giving? Like to our kids?

Merry Christmas, my friends. Next week, we’ll talk about how one woman was able to continue thriving mentally until she died, in spite of having severe, advanced Alzheimer’s disease. See you Friday.

Your Middle Age Brain: Brilliant and Ridiculous All At Once

This is the first in a series of four posts celebrating the aging brain.

I’m looking for my glasses, but I can’t find them because they’re on my head. So I find my backups and try to put them on, but discover I’m already wearing a pair.

I would feel stupid except at times, I feel downright brilliant. This has probably happened to you, too. Maybe you’re listening to a younger person explain a problem at work or you’re reading an article in the news, and suddenly all the facts connect and you come up with such an awesome solution you want to call the Nobel commission.

Except you don’t quite trust what happened, because only yesterday you came home from the grocery store and put the bananas in the hamper. Maybe what you’re having is some kind of brain flair before the cells die. You never shine so brightly as just before, you know - pffffft.

Stop worrying. Both things really are happening. New research confirms that you’re both more addled and more brilliant than ever before in your life.

If you’re a typical middle-aged* person, the glasses and bananas are real, and so is the intellect.

The science of the aging brain is quite new; conclusions being drawn just in the past few years prove that we have more to be excited about than ever. For example, it wasn’t that long ago that we were told brain cells only died; none were regenerated. However, that has now been proven false. The brain DOES produce new cells, primarily in the area relative to memory.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In a great new book, The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, author (and science editor for the NY Times) Barbara Strauch produces tons of evidence that, while our older brains definitely have some weaknesses, they also develop amazing, surprising, even beautiful workarounds. In fact, the older brain is gearing up, not slowing down. All during December I’ll be telling you what I learned, and – plagiarism alert! – excerpting heavily from her book. That’s because I can’t say it any better than Barbara did.

Here’s some good news: in older age, you’re smarter. This is because you’ve accumulated such a wealth of data, and the human brain has a special talent: deduction. Per Ms. Strauch:

The brain builds strength (over a lifetime) by building up millions upon millions of patterns, allowing us to “recognize even vaguely similar patterns and draw appropriate conclusions.”

One researcher, E. Goldberg, calls it “mental magic.”

“Frequently,” says Goldberg, “when I am faced with what would appear from the outside to be a challenging problem, the grinding mental computation is somehow circumvented, rendered, as if by magic, unnecessary. The solution comes effortlessly, seemingly by itself…I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight…”

According to Barbara Strauch, when faced with new information, the older brain might take longer to assimilate and use it. But faced “with information that in some way – even a very small way-relates to what’s already known, the middle-aged brain works quicker and smarter, discerning patterns and jumping to the logical endpoint.”

This is an evolutionary triumph. We’re not called homo sapiens – thinking man – for nothing.

Of course, there’s no getting around the fact that we’re more easily distracted and more likely to lose focus as we age. This is because as you get older, new information comes into the part of your brain that’s good at daydreaming. So when you’re trying to read a newspaper in Starbucks and somebody’s jabbering loudly on his cellphone and you can’t concentrate, it’s because the daydreaming mechanism is doing a crappy job of managing the new info.

You can mitigate this with discipline and practice, but you have to work on it. Personally, I think daydreaming is a treat, and I’m not sure I want to curtail it.

Next week: your brain actually becomes stronger as you age.

*Definition of middle age, per Barbara Strauch, is that long period between youth and old age. I like it. I like it a whole lot better than assuming you’re at the halfway point. Because as vibrant and kick-ass as I am, I’m sure as hell not going to make it to 116.