It hasn't trickled down to employers yet or late-night comedians or much of mainstream media but with each passing year, evidence that old brains are dumber brains is being debunked. Remember that old standby from the 1960s we all believe about losing millions of brain cells a day after age 30? Maybe not, according to a report in the most recent issue of Newsweek. Past data that has indicated age-related brain shrinkage
“...may be skewed by the inclusion of people who have very early dementia – so early that they have no symptoms, explains neuroscientist John Morrison of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, but still have neuronal loss and thus volume loss in their prefontal cortex.
“If only truly healthy people were studied, there might be no such volume loss, he says.”
Other good news, according to the Newsweek report, also relates to neurons. A newly-published study of rhesus monkeys
“...shows how well the aging brain holds up. The animals’ prefrontal cortex indeed loses 'dendritic spines,' tiny protrusions that, acting as the brain’s wide receivers, catch the neurotransmitters that carry signals from other neurons. But there are two kinds of spines in monkeys as well as people.
“Small, thin ones are responsible for learning and remembering new things (where did I park my car?), and short, stubby ones are responsible for recalling things we’ve known for years. The brain loses some 45 percent of the first kind—and zero of the second kind...”
This may account for elders' penchant for reminiscence which plays an important part in life review that is important in our later years, but it is also useful to understanding how much experience we have to call upon in solving problems, an area where older people often out-perform the young. And those short, stubby dendritic spines may explain why we shouldn't worry about forgetting someone's name.
For most of us, there is nothing more frightening than the prospect of losing our memories and as interesting as advances in brain science are, they don't help much with advising us about avoiding dementia. But here is what is known for certain about brain health:
What study and after study after study shows is that the most effective way to maintain mental function as you age is to get off your duff. According to the Newsweek report:
“What does support mental acuity as we age is the same thing that’s good for your heart, lungs, immune system, and muscles: aerobic exercise such as brisk walking. A seminal study by scientists at the University of Illinois found that three vigorous, 40-minute walks a week over six months improves memory and reasoning.
“It also spurs the birth of new brain neurons, scientists led by the University of Illinois’s Art Kramer reported in 2006, and increases the volume of white matter, which connects neurons, in areas responsible for such executive functions as planning.”
You know what you need to do today.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Walt Grant: Uncle Bob