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.]
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.]