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Friday, 30 May 2008

Science and the Wisdom of Age

[EDITORIAL NOTE: A good blog friend I met in the earliest days of Time Goes By is having a birthday today. I'll bet Cowtown Pattie of Texas Trifles would be pleased to get a greeting from you at her blog.]

category_bug_journal2.gif Jokes about fading memory in old age are commonplace even among elders themselves. “I’m having a senior moment” is our standard filler when a reference eludes us - an excuse that contains within it a not-so-hidden fear of incipient dementia.

For the past couple of weeks, a short, little story in The New York Times has received a lot of attention because the research it reports suggests that it is not forewarnings of dementia causing our senior moments, but what could be called wisdom:

“When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong,” [writes Sara Reistad-Long].

“Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.”

In a study of reading retention given to young and old involving extraneous, unrelated words tucked into the text, elders took longer to absorb the information, but they were better able to answer questions about those words.

“For the young people, it’s as if the distraction never happened,” said an author of the review, Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute. “But for older adults, because they’ve retained all this extra data, they’re now suddenly the better problem solvers. They can transfer the information they’ve soaked up from one situation to another.”

This mirrors earlier studies reported a couple of years ago in Time magazine:

“Far from slowly powering down, the brain as it ages begins bringing new cognitive systems on line and cross-indexing existing ones in ways it never did before. You may not pack so much raw data into memory as you could when you were cramming for college finals, and your short-term memory may not be what it was, but you manage information and parse meanings that were entirely beyond you when you were younger.

“What's more, your temperament changes to suit those new skills, growing more comfortable with ambiguity and less susceptible to frustration or irritation.”

According to this earlier study, as we get older, the functions assigned to the two hemispheres of our brains change:

“As we age, however, the walls between the hemispheres seem to fall, with the two halves working increasingly in tandem. Neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza of Duke University dubs that the HAROLD (hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults) model, and judging by his work, the phenomenon is a powerful one…

“Again and again, he found that the high-functioning older adults were using either a hemisphere different from the one the other subjects were using or both hemispheres at the same time.”

Not infrequently, research turns up proof that the folklore of current and past tribal cultures has a basis in scientific fact - finding, for example, that a plant used for centuries as a remedy contains a chemical compound or enzyme that explains the efficacy of the remedy.

Similarly, tribal cultures around the world have relied on their elders as storehouses of the group’s knowledge and as sources of wisdom. Now, as with physical remedies and cures, science is beginning to find proof of that wisdom, as both of the studies referenced here conclude:

“A broad attention span may enable older adults to ultimately know more about a situation and the indirect message of what’s going on than their younger peers,” Dr. Hasher said. “We believe that this characteristic may play a significant role in why we think of older people as wiser.”
- The New York Times, 20 May 2008
"In midlife," says UCLA neurologist George Bartzokis, "you're beginning to maximize the ability to use the entirety of the information in your brain on an everyday, ongoing, second-to-second basis. Biologically, that's what wisdom is."
- Time, 13 January 2006

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Linda Davis tells a sad but also uplifting truth in Sisterhood of the Abused.]


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 03:05 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

The point about growing more comfortable with ambiguity is I think spot on.

The fact that older workers take longer to come to a considered conclusion (or decide to live with inconclusion) is something that I observed in my professional life. I'm sure that more than a few of us took advantage of this observation, without knowing why we did so. My encouraging young engineers to walk away from a problem and to talk it over with someone--anyone--reflected my observations not that they needed help although a second or third person undoubtedly could contribute, but that they needed to give themselves time to think of multiple possible solutions to their problem. I encouraged, even my brightest, ablest young engineers to give themselves a chance.

Thank you!

Lordy don't the days fly by...

I really look forward to reading what you come up with on a daily basis...I have always had a strong desire to hang around folks older then me...my grandmother's wisdom about taking off and exploring the world before I had other responsibilities enabled me to have fantastic experiences that have led me to live the life I choose...and enjoy every moment of it.

Totally unrelated to science, more to the sublime (not that science can't be sublime.. but):

Beryl Cook died (yesterday) at age 81. Her art was wonderful stuff - and I think many on this list will find it pleasing. Go take a look and think some pleasant thoughts about a woman who brought a lot of smiles to a lot of faces... If you don't find one on yours, then I proclaim you to be a thoroughgoing sourpuss!

Fair Winds, Beryl Cook. I am sorry to know that the paintings we have of yours are all there will ever be.

Cap'n Jan

I felt such relief when I read this blog. I thought I was in the beginning stages of dementia when I was unable to remember an ordinary word. Senior moments seem to be more frequent now, yet my contrary brain can recall the name of a dentist I had sixty years ago. It's weird how memory works.

This is such an amazing discovery, but yet it rings so true. I would remember where I put my teeth and the sugar if I wasn't so deeply entrenched in thoughts beneath the surface of what my children and grandchildren say. It no longer suffices to know what happened. That is all too skeletal for me. I find myself contemplating a deeper and wider level that encompasses so much more. What was their intent, what emotions led to that decision, why did they have those emotions, do they understand what was the guiding force? There is no end to the clutter and synapses that kick in when all my grandaughter says, is 'in my life I need a change.' I thought this all came from a feeling of too much responsibility for everyone else. Now I understand it. Too many years, too much experience, make me see a pinprick in time as a wide expansive ocean.

Thank you for writing this. It is 'way' comforting to fully understand what causes my paranoia about what young people see as 'nothing'.

“What's more, your temperament changes to suit those new skills, growing more comfortable with ambiguity and less susceptible to frustration or irritation.”

I do have a lot more patience up to a point but some built in clock keeps ticking and suddenly I tell myself we have waited long enough and become quite irritable. Usually this is after long waits in medical facilities. If I am in a restaurant and am hungry my patience becomes very short though.

Ronni, I read this Times article when it was first was published and as I read it I though, finally, an article about aging that shows there are advantages to being older.

Plus, I knew you would be doing a post on it not to far into the future and as usual you have expanded on what the Times has reported. Thank you for that.

Oh, what I also found interesting is this article was the statistic that only 13% of people over 65 develop Alzheimer's. The way the media presents it I was sure we all had at least a 50/50 chance of getting it.

I am currently working on a story regarding dementia. Many of us are hearing more than we care or need to about forgetfulness and old people. I, like Darlene, began to have concerns.

For the last few years I've been hearing over and over that 50 is the new 30.

Now after all this research I'll be hearing that 50 is the new 70.

I think we worry way too much about dementia. My mother is very forgetful and actually does have dementia, but I am very forgetful (often because I'm multi-tasking and have too much to think about) and even my KIDS (ages 11 and 18) are very forgetful (because they only care about what they are interested in, and have short attention spans - the husband, too). There are many reasons for forgetfulness. None of us can talk about our "Baba" because all of us have plenty of "Baba moments!"

Momentary memory lapses are the one subject that I find requires the most reassurance from patients with whom I work. Also, occasionally forgetting" some words often symbolizes to them their mind is "going," when all that is actually happening is the same as when they were younger. They thought nothing of it when young, might say, "Oh, I'm getting old," and laugh it away. (Ageist view?) Now as elders we're conditioned to think such behavior indicates a much more serious brain deterioration. Much better to talk with someone in a position to provide a realistic perspective on the matter, than to privately harbor such a false assumption.

I'll never forget when I was instructing a class on creative writing for a group of "seniors," my mind suddenly went blank and I not only forgot what I was saying but the whole point was lost to me. "Excuse me," said I, "I think I've just had a senior moment." I was in my mid-50's at the time. One woman, on the edge of 80 at the time, quietly answered, "That may sound humorous now, but someday it probably won't be so funny anymore." She was right. It was just an expression to me and I said it without thinking. I don't think I've used it since that day. Today, perhaps as some sort of recompense perhaps, Hubby and I signed up as volunteer for an alzheimer research study.

please put me on your regular mailing list.
Thank you

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