How to Keep Your Brain Young
Your Ever-Evolving Brain
Every few months, a course catalog from a local community college appears in my mailbox. Usually I flip through the listings, then toss it in the recycling bin. But last week, when I got the catalog, a course in Latin beckoned to me. Why not give it a try, I thought? Tackling a new language could be fun, and it would be illuminating to know the Latin roots for English words.
But something held me back. Granted, a dead language spoken only by priests and Oxford dons has limited usefulness. But there was more to it than that. The prospect of studying, memorizing, and being tested filled me with trepidation. I hadn't crammed for a test in 20 years. Between then and now, my life had grown to accommodate a career, a husband, two kids, and a dog, and my once agile mind seemed to have taken a vacation -- perhaps, I feared, a permanent one. Had childbirth softened my brain as well as my abdominals?
Thirty years ago scientists might well have told us so. At birth, went the theory, we have acquired all the brain cells we will ever have, and by our early 20s they begin to die in large numbers. Then, a few years ago, researchers made a discovery that sparked hope in aging hearts everywhere: We continue to generate new brain cells throughout our lives. One of the hottest areas in neuroscience now involves figuring out what triggers the production of these cells, and what role they may play in learning and memory.
Meanwhile, neuroscientists have also discovered other important ways in which the adult brain changes: The connections between brain cells (which control the way information flows from one cell to the next) can grow stronger or weaker, and the cells, if stimulated appropriately, may even sprout new connections. "It turns out that the brain, even in adulthood, is remarkably adaptive," says Michael Merzenich, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco. Yes, our existing brain cells do start to die as we age, but recent research shows that even this does not have to be inevitable. We can stem the loss by using our brains, even in ways that require little effort.
Sounds great, you may be saying to yourself, but why do I sometimes have trouble remembering a person's name, or even the name of a simple household item?
Sister, I hear you. I am all too familiar with the frustration of needing a word, having it within reaching distance, but being unable to seize it: "Honey, where's the whatchamacallit -- you know, the flat metal thingy for turning pancakes?"
The hard truth is that memory does start to decline noticeably beginning in our 40s, as does the rate at which we process information. Fortunately, the drop-off is slight, far less of a big deal than most of us make of it. And, indeed, experts attribute much midlife muddle to factors unrelated to anything physical. Kids, work, bills, chores, and e-mail all compete for time in our heads, making it harder to devote the attention needed to learn something new or recall something learned earlier. Like any overloaded computer system, the one between our ears occasionally crashes, bringing forth a "senior moment."
This theory is borne out by a study from the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. Cognitive neuroscientist Denise Park, PhD, compared the ability of 121 people from 34 to 84 to remember to take their medicine. Guess who fared the worst? The middle-aged folks. Busy lives seem to overload the memory circuits, says Dr. Park.