My eldest daughter who means well and is very concerned about my well-being sends me articles from scientific journals, about aging and the older brain.
Most of those publications are very cheery and have plenty of wistful thinking about the possibilities of the aging brain.
They seldom define “old,” or “old brain” which allows us, mostly older readers, to fill in that gap and make conjectures as to whether we already have an “aging brain” at 60, at 75, or at 84, which is my case.
We are told that “age is a number” and that “age is a state of mind,” a mindset that we adopt willy-nilly at some given point in our lives.
Old age is in my mind, they are right, but they forget about my bones, eyesight, prostate, teeth, heart…
My naïve question is: if every part of our body ages, why doesn´t the brain age as well?
Forgetting things, dozing off sometimes, absent-mindedness, the inability to learn new skills, dwelling in the past and longing for it… are in our brain or are they part of our brain?
In the Elderly Advocates of Alberta Society in an article titled “The brain of an elderly person” I read: “The peak of human intellectual activity occurs at about 70 years old when the brain begins to work at full strength.” This is an example of unscientific wistful thinking at full throttle.
Of course, these young neuroscientists protect themselves by adding “at about 70”.
There is certainly no bona fide evidence that this is so and we would again have to define “intellectual activity.”
Is solving a crossword puzzle intellectual activity? Or is it discovering, at age 79, a new heart surgery procedure that will minimize deaths in the operating room?
We have been told for years that neurons die at a rate of 30.000 a day but now, just like that, the article states that “The neurons of the brain do not die off, as everyone around them says. Connections between them simply disappear if a person does not engage in mental work.”
What are we to think of scientists who do not seem to be serious enough to put forth a solid theory about the brain?
We might run away with the impression that their insights into the brain are unscientific and are truly just shots in the dark. Do brain cells die daily or don´t they?
After having sprinkled gems like the above all over the article I mentioned, it ends with a note of superhuman gallantry and optimism: “… if a person leads a healthy lifestyle, moves, has a feasible physical activity and has full mental activity, intellectual abilities DO NOT decrease with age, but only GROW, reaching a peak by the age of 80-90 years.” Fancy that!
We all know of people of 60 with advanced Alzheimer’s. I have 35-year-old students whom I have to remind of certain things again and again. Many people at 70 have Parkinson´s disease.
My good friend José María Carrascal writes his weekly newspaper column at age 92. I am writing this at 84.
Some people, unfortunately, die very young. Bruce Willis has aphasia at 68.
Most people have not had intellectual activities ever, have never had healthy lifestyles, and have seldom used their legs for transportation, only their cars… and they are ok at 88.
My conclusion is that aging, or erosion, occurs as a law of nature. It is a reality; it is not a filament of our imagination and we can´t snap out of it.
No matter how much we try to deny the process, it is here to stay.
And just as we had to adjust to being an adolescent, or a parent, or a divorcee, or process the loss of a loved one… we must accept what is and make the best of it, and consider ourselves lucky if we reach the end of our life relatively well.
So let us be of good cheer with our infirmities and consider that we are survivors, generation after generation, for millions of years… Not bad!
I don´t want to deceive myself, I don´t like to lie to myself. At 84 I am not a spring chicken and I must learn to accept my age, no matter how hard this fact is.
And I will let my daughter keep on trying to cheer me up because after all, old age is “in my mind.” (And today, sadly, in my left hip which is killing me.)
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