YOU’RE WISER NOW
by: Kelly Griffin
A new look at the surprising
resilience and growth potential
of the human brain.
Y ou react faster when you’re young. There’s no getting around it. But when people over 50 notice that they’ve lost a bit of that snap-crackle speed, they frequently over-look the mental powers they’ve gained in the bargain. “In the old days, you called it wisdom,” says Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence Katz, Ph.D. “But what is wisdom, really? It is a dense and rich network of asso- ciations developed through a lifetime of experiences.” You can’t buy that richness, and you can’t get it from a pill. You have to earn it—by putting your gray matter to the test time and time again . “There’s a reason we don’t have 20-year-olds running Fortune 500 companies,” Katz says.
Indeed, studies have shown that older adults are better at solving problems, more flexible in their strategies, and better able to keep their cool during a crisis than younger people are.. They also tend to bounce back from a bad mood more quickly. Keep that in mind the next time you’re wandering through a parking lot looking for your car.
But it’s not just that you get smarter in some ways as you age. The fact is that, with the exception of glitches in short-term memory and a general slowdown in thinking speed, you just don’t lose much-brainpower with normal aging. It’s usual to take longer to learn new information after 50, for example, but once you have learned something new it stays with you as well as it does with younger people.
And yet many older adults think they’re losing ground. In surveys, up to half of people over 65 say they have subjective memory problems. (Only about 3 percent of people between the ages of 65 and 74 actually have Alzheimer’s disease. The risk does rise with age, though; nearly half of those over 85 may have it.)
Why the disconnect between what our o1der brains can really do and what we think they can do? Blame it on our youth-obsessed culture. Many factors can impair thinking and memory, but the most insidious is ageism. Researchers are discovering that the more you buy into the notion that getting older means losing your marbles, the more likely you are to succumb to it.
For example, Yale University psychologist Becca Levy, Ph.D., has found that older people shown negative words about aging, such as senile, before taking memory tests did significantly worse on the tests than those shown positive words about
aging, such as wisdom. In fact, people who saw positive words improved their own scores. Levy has also shown that in cultures with a more positive view of aging than ours—China, for instance—older people perform better on memory tests.
The American myth of inevitable mental decay comes in part from cross-sectional studies—those in which young, middle-aged, and older adults are given the same tests, and their results are compared. Is it any wonder that people raised on Play-Station are better at video games than their elders? By contrast, longitudinal studies—those in which a group of people is followed over time—tell a different and much more positive story.
A Rush University study of 1,000 priests, nuns, and brothers has shown that the brainpower of older people changes little from year to year unless they develop a dementing illness. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found the same thing by testing people annually until the age of 90. When a problem with thinking or memory does occur, it should be taken seriously. If you find yourself forgetting things you used to know cold—such as your own phone number or the route to the grocery store—call the doctor.
But even abnormal memory problems don’t necessarily mean Alzheimer’s disease. “There’s a little saying we have in my field,” says Stanford University psychiatrist Jerome Yesavage, M.D. “When a patient comes in and complains about their memory, they’re depressed until proven otherwise.” Depression head trauma, hormone problems, and other conditions can cause problems with thinking and memory that maybe reversible with treatment.
One of the most encouraging recent findings is that lifestyle choices such as a healthy diet and regular aerobic exercise may actually lower your risk of developing dementia. Challenging your intellect with puzzles, lessons, and simple changes in habit could offer additional protection. And if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, take heart. Though a cure seems painfully far off, a new understanding of the disorder means abetter life for patients and families.
Clubs for those in the early stages of the disease offer a way to hang on and fight back. As author Judith Levine writes in an essay about her father (“He’s Still In There,” page 86), dementia can tear your memories away from you—but not your heart or soul.
North Carolina—based medical
writer Kelly Griffin wrote “Beat
Pain Step by Step” in the July—
August issue. AARP Magazine
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