We’ve known for quite a while that some people seem to escape cognitive decline well into their nineties and beyond. Intriguingly, the brains of these sharp olders often reveal the extensive abnormalities like the “plaques” and “tangles” seen in people with Alzheimer’s. We think it’s because they’ve built what scientists call “cognitive reserve.”
This weekend I presented my work for the first time, at the annual conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, a group of social scientists and practitioners whose work I greatly respect. The title of the talk was “The Value of Work in Late Life,” but I pulled a slight bait-and-switch, because it turns out that this project isn’t about work any more. It's about ageism, starting with our own internalized biases. Here’s the ten-minute talk I gave:
If I had to live the rest of my life without breaking a sweat, I could cope. Strapping lads could carry me up subway steps on a litter. Somehow, I’d get my brain from place to place. Vigor, agility, beauty . . . those, too, I can acknowledge losing, though not without a struggle. They don’t hold a candle to my deepest terror: that I’ll lose my mind. Just how reasonable is this fear?
I’ve been working on the Introduction for the book proposal, and am delighted by the fact that a number of ideas fell nicely into place. One of them was the framing of three central paradoxes of aging well. The first I knew intuitively. The third one was a complete surprise when I encountered it through my reading; then (duh!) I realized that it mirrored my own experience. The second one I only figured out a few weeks ago, while trying to synthesize research findings.
That maddening “senior moment” when the topic at hand slips away and you assume your brains are leaking out along with it? According to a growing number of studies, this gloomy assessment is wrong-headed. Instead, older brains are sifting through the store of information accumulated over a lifetime, filtering, placing information in context — and often coming up with a better answer or solution than younger respondents.
After arthritis forced her to give up embroidery in her 70’s, the renowned American folk artist Anna Mary Robertson Moses (aka “Grandma Moses”) took up painting. She lived to be 101. Coincidence? Not if Gene Cohen, the eminent evangelist of good news about the aging brain, was right.
In a recent talk, Cohen described neuroscience findings that show unforeseen psychological development late in the life cycle. As we turn 80, frontal lobe changes improve the ability to deal with negative emotions. Cohen likes these empowering changes to “friendly metaphorical inner voices saying, ‘If not now, when? What can they do to me?’ This gives people comfort, confidence, and courage,” the gerontologist attests. In the audio clip below Marcia Muth describes how the lessening of anxiety has made her 80s even more enjoyable than her 70s.
Almost all of the dozen or so people I’ve interviewed so far feel that keeping active forestalls decline. Billy Kyle is typical. When his son joined his Detroit general surgery practice, he left the hospital and now performs only outpatient surgeries in the office. “But I didn’t want to stop, because I think when you stop you start going down,” he comments. “I think when you get to the point that you want to retire, you have to retire to something else. I get up at 6, 6:30 in the morning and I think I need to keep doing that: get out of the bed, get cleaned up, and do something.”