Sometimes I get philosophical at birthdays about the whole aging thing. I used to see birthdays as milestones along the road of life. Now I have a bunch of milestones behind me, and birthdays look more like a countdown.
It really hit home when I was thinking about dropping off the board of the Georgia Chiropractic Association last year for the first time in my career. At one time such an action would seem sacrilegious to me, but now I am involved in so many things that I am overcommitted. What really hit me hard about this decision was the realization that I am no longer building my resume. That realization was far more profound than it might seem on the surface.
One might look at life like a missile being fired from a launching pad. At first, it gains a lot of speed and altitude with very impressive noise and smoke. At some point it reaches its zenith and levels off. When you think about it, it is all downhill from there. And so what was when I realized I was no longer building my resume. Had I reach my zenith? Is it all downhill from here? How far from here is the site of my crash?
Are you wondering what inspired this whimsical, perhaps satirical, discussion of the aging process? I was laughing at an email a friend sent to me recently about elderly folks and their ability to think. The popular assumption is that an aging brain does not think as well as a young brain, or that it processes information more slowly. The email my friend sent me suggested that this is a myth, a cruel misunderstanding of cognitive processes.
I thought this email was a joke until I did some research. If you are depressed by my first three paragraphs above, take great hope in the work of Dr. Michael Ramscar, a researcher from Germany whose doctoral work focuses on artificial intelligence, cognitive function, memory, and some other things I have probably forgotten (just kidding, but I had you there, didn’t I?). I found an explanation of his research in a recent edition of Science Daily.
Dr. Ramscar and his team assert that older brains take longer to process and retrieve information simply because they know more than younger brains. The analogy that applies here deals with computers. We have all had slow computers that take seemingly forever to retrieve data. Does that not more often occur when the hard drive is full?
This research about senior brains suggests, for example, that seniors may perform more slowly on linguistic tests because their vocabulary is larger, fortified by many years of life experience. It may take longer for a senior to sift through a vast repertoire of stored experience, language, perceptions, sensations, emotions, and everything else that makes us human just because our mental storage facility may be cluttered.
A few minutes ago I was talking to a patient who has five generations of her family living. She is herself a grandmother, but her grandmother is alive and well at 101 years old. I asked her if her grandmother had trouble with everyone’s names. Immediately, she said, “Yes, she goes down the roll.” I had a hearty laugh here because my grandmother did the same.
Ramscar’s work touches on the phenomenon of seniors having more trouble recalling names. There is a far greater variety of names today than 40 or 50 years ago. This represents a cultural shift with greater diversity in what we call each other, so the number of different names that anyone must learn over a lifetime has increased accordingly. This contributes to difficulty in recalling a name and attaching it to a face. That would be true for a computer as well. I take great comfort in that personally, but I think some of you will, too.
This research team concluded that we need better ways to assess cognitive function in older brains that account for the diversity and amount of information our brains have to process. “The brains of older people do not get weak,” said Dr. Ramscar, “On the contrary, they simply know more.”
The email joke has ultimately made me feel better about life. Of course, there is still the reality that like the missile, I might have already reached my zenith, and reentry might be uncomfortable, and landing even worse. But, I will take comfort that my slow mental responses are merely a sign that my hard drive is jammed with information.
I feel better already. I hope you do.
Robert A. Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC