Life Times Newsletter

Summer 2006
Vol. 8, No. 3

The aging brain: Separating myth from reality

Rosilee Trotta, LCSW
Urban Youth and Family Specialist

Good news! Sigmund Freud was wrong! His statement that people over age 50 are no longer educable is not a credible theory.

I’m guessing that most of you over age 50 didn’t buy the premise anyway. With the fastest growing population in the United States being 85 and older, 50 just doesn’t seem that old anymore. In fact, today people over 65 enjoy better health, have fewer disabilities, are better educated and are less likely to live in poverty than their predecessors, says the National Institutes of Health (2006). I’m thinking very few of us feel we belong on the front porch soaking up rays and exercising gently in a rocking chair.

While it’s true we lose brain cells as we age, the myth that we lose thousands that cannot be replaced is simply that—a myth. Studies by Gerald Fischbach have demonstrated that we have large excess reserve in brain function, so that even a 10 percent decrease in brain weight will probably not impair our mental or physical ability. No matter our age, there are plenty of neurons not being utilized.

Dr. Gene Cohen, Director of the Center on Aging, Health and Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center, has shown that an old brain is every bit as capable as a young brain at making connections between nerve cells. These connections, called dendrites, are microscopic fibers that enable the neurons to communicate with one another. While the neurons themselves may lose some processing speed with age, they become ever more richly intertwined.

As a result, older adults tend to use both sides of their brains far more than younger people. This more balanced brain use results in greater stability between thoughts and feelings. That may be why we “mellow” with age. Indeed, imaging studies determine that older adults show less evidence of fear, anger and hatred than younger adults. They also tend to be less impulsive and not as likely to dwell on negative feelings (Cohen, 2006). The wisdom of later life, then, may be due to the combined forces of experience and this improved use of both sides of our brain.

While short-term and remote memories are usually not affected by aging, recent memory may be. Almost everyone over 50 has had episodes of forgetting where she put the keys, or the last name of the person he met yesterday, or just why she entered a room. Ah, those
“senior moments”! Aging may indeed affect memory by changing the way our brains store information. But this is a normal phenomenon and not usually a big deal in healthy people.

Another myth that has lost credibility with recent studies is that older people are no longer capable of creativity. Not true, say researchers. People such as Einstein, Bach, da Vinci, Grandma Moses and many others remained creative until death, some in their 90s. Even our beginning
pessimist, Freud, did much of his important work past age 65. In fact, later life may give us the time and opportunity to explore creative passions in more depth than in our earlier years. If we try, we may achieve greater mastery of a skill or tap the potential of talents that lay dormant while we dealt with everyday issues like jobs and family.

Pablo Casals, the great cellist, was once asked why he continued to
practice four to five hours a day when he was in his eighties. “Because,” he replied, “I have a notion that I am making some progress.”

People who do best with the aging process are those who exercise physically; challenge themselves mentally; pick leisure activities that stimulate the whole persona, such as dancing, playing musical instruments, doing crossword puzzles or reading; achieve mastery on anything ranging from embroidery to poetry to learning a new language; and establish strong social

The reality is that aging is an attitude. If you strive for your potential in youth and middle-age, you probably will do the same in later life. But you have to keep working at it. It is true: If you don’t use it, you lose it!

George Burns, at age 100, may have nailed the concept best when he said: “You can’t help growing older...but you can help growing old.”

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University of Missouri Extension Editor: Roxanne T. Miller