The research and articles about the aging brain are daunting.
There are so many focuses: memory with dementia and Alzheimer’s, emotional and physical changes, agility, learning, etc., and all of the ideas and facts keep being revised. It seems like nobody really knows but everybody’s writing about it – including me!
Dr. Bruce Yanken of Harvard Medical School says our brains function even better than younger ones because we are using both the left and the right hemispheres. In younger years, we used more of only the conscious reasoning side of the prefrontal cortex. Using more of our brains causes us to take longer to work through and then let go of a specific task. Interconnected regions of the brain – the parts that control memory and daydreaming – also grow more active with age, so we may spend more time daydreaming.
Yanken goes on to say that these abilities improve with age:
Accentuating the positive
Then there’s the wonderful Jane Brody, who writes the column “Well” for The New York Times. She talks about all the brain gizmos being marketed to elders, such herbal supplements, alpha-lipoid acid, ginkgo billoba, brain-training games on computers and smartphones, puzzles, etc. She cites many studies where none of this really makes a difference in the longevity of the health of our brains. A computer game called “NeuronRacer” did improve focus, attention and memory, but the effects lasted only six months.
Brody concludes that physical activity, social and intellectual engagement, a heart-healthy diet and getting seven hours of sleep each night can do wonders for our brains. She also addresses people by name every time she sees them and dials frequently called phone numbers from memory rather than using speed dial. Interesting.
Michael Ramscar, a linguistics researcher at a German university, says, “Our heads are so chock-full of knowledge that it simply takes longer to retrieve the right bit.” Our slowness and slight forgetfulness are a result of there being more to draw on, more places to search and more information to search through to find an answer.
This all goes on and on, and I’m feeling exhausted just writing about it. It all seems to play to our notion of fear more than anything. I wonder if we can all be more aware of how our minds play with us. Taking some quiet time each day to see how out of control our minds can be can help us see that the fears of aging are just an invention of the mind. Aging is difficult, it’s true; but so much of the suffering is because of our fears.
The fear of losing our minds is the challenge. “If I lose my mind, then what will happen, and where will I be and who will care for me ... ?” and a horror show of terrors continues.
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass says, “There is no end to unchecked fear as we get older and feel more vulnerable in the world. Fear in its myriad forms can become a constant companion that renders old age as a living hell.”
So, let’s try not to pay attention to all the aging-mind fears that pop up in the press, in the world and in our minds. Let’s be more mindful of when the fears visit, and bring whatever clarity, quiet and attention we can to the thoughts prompting the fear. I hope this practice can be the first step in freeing ourselves from all that is happening as we age.
This aging thing is certainly not for wimps!
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.