Carole Carson: Joyful aging — the aging brain |

Carole Carson: Joyful aging — the aging brain

Carole Carson
Special to The Union

What’s your view on how our brains age?

Do you agree with William Shakespeare who, in “Much Ado About Nothing,” has a character loudly proclaim: “As they say, ‘When the age is in, the wit is out.’”

Or, are you a follower of Epicurus who believed that old age was the pinnacle of life?

Or, yet again, are you waiting to make up your mind until you get there?


The “wit” that Shakespeare refers to is the brain, an organ about which we understand very little and yet on which a major part of quality of our final years depends.

For centuries — even predating Aristotle — the heart, rather than the brain, was thought to be the source of emotions, feelings and thoughts. In the 17th century, a new metaphor emerged: the brain was compared to, and worked like, a machine. The metaphor shifted again in the 19th century to the brain as a telephone exchange or network.


Two centuries later, our knowledge of how the brain functions remains extremely limited. According to Matthew Cobb, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Manchester, “We still don’t have the foggiest idea of how billions of neurons interact and connect to produce the brain’s activity” and how that activity produces consciousness.


Thanks to the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience, however, we have added to our knowledge of how the brain changes with aging. In one study, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Massachusetts Hospital tested language, IQ, memory, emotional recognition, working memory, and number skills in 48,357 individuals from age 10 to 89.

They found some skills (like memory) peak early, typically in the late teens. In contrast, working memory peaks between ages 30 and 40.

Also, young adults could identify someone’s emotions from looking at a photo of their eyes. This skill kept improving to nearly age 50. At that point the skill began to decline but very, very gradually.

Vocabulary improved with age and peaked for most until ages 60 to 70 before stabilizing.


Dr. Denise Park, a researcher at the Aging Mind Laboratory at the University of Texas at Dallas has confirmed that over time the brain structure decreases in size. This accounts for a slowing of processing speed and a reduced inhibitory function, working memory and long-term memory.

At the same time, another part of the brain, the frontal lobes, have greater activity. This region of the brain involves planning, decision-making, maintaining emotional control, and other complex mental processes.

The aging brain also has a greater knowledge and insight acquired over a lifetime of experience. Evidently, decades of living are necessary to put the age in sage.


Based on this research, Park would send seniors back to school to preserve and enhance mental skills. She bases her advice on the results of an experiment in which participants age 60 and older were assigned to one of three classes for 16 hours a week for three months. In the first, students chose either quilting or digital photography. The content was challenging, involving complicated sewing machines that required programming or technical photography and computer skills.

Two other classes also met regularly. One engaged in non-demanding social events; the other worked on projects that relied on previously acquired skills and knowledge.


At the end of the three months, those in the tough class (quilting and digital photography) “showed significantly improved episodic memory and enhanced neural function” relative to the individuals in the non-demanding social event or classes.

Park concluded that the sustained mental effort of learning is good exercise to keep the brain functioning.

In particular, she recommends learning a new language or learning to play an instrument.


Increasing evidence indicates that the seniors who have the least decline in mental functioning share common lifestyle choices. As part of their routine, these seniors: exercise regularly; keep learning; stay socially active; manage stress; eat healthily and minimize sodas; maintain an appropriate weight; and get adequate sleep on a regular basis.

The seven habits may be a bit daunting to follow. But on a positive note, the list is finite.

As are we, or so the calendar reminds us.

Yet Dr. Sanjay Gupta, based on his medical experience, is “convinced that the brain can be continually enhanced and fine-tuned — no matter your age.”

So, maybe the calendar doesn’t matter after all?

Carole Carson, Nevada City, is an author, former AARP website contributor, and leader of the 1994 Nevada County Meltdown. Contact:

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