On my way home mid-afternoon on one of the first really warm days, the windows of my Subaru were down and NPR’s “Fresh Air” was up. Terry Gross was interviewing Barbara Strauch, the health and medical science editor at “The New York Times” about her new book, “The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain.” By grown-up, she means middle-age. By middle-age, she means anyone between the ages of 40 and 68. By anyone in that age span, she means me.
As an illustration to demonstrate the difference between my brain and, say, my 16-year-old stepdaughter’s brain, she offered this quick test: How many “D” words can you come up with in 15 seconds? Since I’m a “word girl,” that should be a no-brainer. Mark the time. Okay. GO!
The bad news, reported Strauch, is that our brains do decline as we age. The good news: This decline most of us are experiencing is perfectly normal. It’s not a big deal if you can’t remember the word “refrigerator” in a nanosecond. It is if you can’t remember what a refrigerator is for.
The status quo: We middlers are easily distracted; I’ve spent several minutes looking for keys that were in my hands. We become immersed in inner dialogue or drift into daydreams, often while we’re doing something rather important, like cooking…or driving; I’ve boiled a reduction to destruction and traveled miles before realizing I’ve long passed Turkey Hill where I needed to stop for…something. And we suffer from what are called “episodic memory lapses,” losing entire scenes or moments; I may or may not have had a whole-grain waffle for breakfast. I can’t remember.
Remembering names is probably the most common complaint (besides bad knees) of middle-agers. I call to mind a recent collective breakdown several of my high-school pals and I experienced on Facebook. Someone had posted that our sociology teacher, a guy we thought was ancient 35 years ago, was finally retiring. This is an abridged version of a two-day 27-comment-long thread in which 11 of my fellow alum weighed in:
John: Didn’t he teach math too?
Janice: Yes. But low level. Who was the guy who taught trig? I hated trig.
John: I think he was a short guy.
Me: And didn’t he limp?
Janice: I’m getting my yearbook–if I can remember where I put it. lol
Me: No! Not yet! OMG! I should know this. He was also the swim coach.
Cathy: A… I’m going through the alphabet. B… B-a… B-e… It was B-e… something.
Me: You do that too?! OMG! Yes! B! And it had an L… M… It had an N in it somewhere.
John: Mr. Benner?
Go, Janice! The math teacher’s name was indeed Mr. Bennett. Now here’s the thing I was most astounded to learn, making my way north on 611 as Terry and Barbara chatted on the FM airwaves. We store words in two locations: One place is for information/data associated with the word; and the second holds the sound that goes with that information. So the part of our brains that remembered the short, bald teacher with a limp who taught trigonometry and coached swimming is still strong. Where the word “Bennett” sleeps needs a wake-up call. That’s why many of us, I now know, mentally run through the alphabet as reveille. I thought it was my own brilliant cheat-sheet.
But what we lack in memory, I learned, we make up for in reasoning and planning and in understanding the gist. We’re better at sizing up people, deciding rather quickly whether the salesperson really has our best interest at heart when he tries to sell us an extended warranty. And while a 25-year-old might be quicker in compiling a list of vegetables, the middle-age brain will automatically categorize those vegetables into colors and shapes. I guess this is a good talent to have. However, I’d rather be able to remember an author’s name when I’m standing clueless in the stacks at Barnes & Noble instead of mentally noting that asparagus, celery and scallions are all long and green.
Now how do we keep our frontal cortex fit? Exercise, experts recommend. It’s not just the heart that benefits. All that oxygenated blood that’s coursing through the body is nourishing the brain too. And we should put our gray matter on a metaphoric treadmill as well. Sudoku is okay. Learning a language is better. But best: Argue a point; talk to people who disagree with us. Churning around a conflict, it seems, keeps us sharp.
I pulled up to my house, listening to the conclusion of the interview (a/k/a I Was Having a Driveway Moment) and deep in thought. With the mid-term elections bearing down on us, it occurred to me that the perfect place to argue, confront and disagree is the political arena. Yes! Holding public office will keep me smart. While I admit that to many that statement seems oxymoronic (confession: I needed a 15-minute break while writing this to retrieve the word “oxymoron”), consider my mom.
Thirty years ago, when she was 51–the age I am now—she was first elected to her town council, eventually becoming mayor while sitting on a number of state boards and commissions. She’s still writing press releases for local candidates and attending every council meeting she can. And more often than not, at these Tuesday meetings, she waits in line for the podium with something rather prickly in her arsenal about the goings-on in the current administration. But is Mom a role model when it comes to mental acuity?
The other day I was driving her to a doctor’s appointment, telling her all I’d learned about the aging brain and bemoaning my miserable showing on the “D” test. She interrupted me, the starting gun having gone off. “Detriment, dexterity, demeaning, diligent…” she began to rattle off. I thought of another “D” word: