MSNBC’s How the Body Ages presents an abbreviated version of what happens to us over the years, from head to toe. In the interest of fair representation, I have taken it upon myself to offer alternative explanations for what happens to our brains as we age.
How the Body Ages says our brains are “largest” in our 20’s and then begin to “decline after that.” What the hell does “decline” mean in the same sentence as “largest”? Did they mean, “shrink”? These two words are hardly synonymous. Who’s got the deficit now?
Perhaps our brains are less shrinking and more molding to the maximum amount of tissue used up to that point. This would explain why Stephen Hawking, despite his debilitating physical condition, is so freaking smart and sharp: he was in pursuit of much brain-stimulation during his big-brain years.
On the other hand, many elderly women I’ve known were in peak physical condition much of their lives by way of raising children and engaging with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were also engaged in the least intellectually stimulating lifestyles. Many of them died in their 90’s after suffering at least a decade with deteriorating neurological conditions that evaded diagnosis.
Clearly that catchy rhyme is sage advice: Be cool. Stay in school.
I theorize that the more of our brains we use while they are still large, the less shrinkage we will experience, and the more able our brains will be to carry us coherently into the night. Put 10 candy bars into one balloon and 20 candy bars into another. Inflate them both and go back a few weeks later to see them both deflated. One of the balloons will be larger than the other even though both lost all of their air.
A brain is no different. I can substantiate this with several college-educated guesses and limited research, which has since resulted in three cavities and a fair number of irate children who want their candy back.
It’s oft said youth is wasted on the young, and the same could be said of those who forgo the opportunity to do more with their brains. Opportunity is not limited to formal education. Just read once in a while, young whippersnappers, and you’ll find yourself light years ahead of your iPod-wearing, not-too-cool-to-drool peers who also have some of the highest vehicular homicide and car insurance rates in the nation.
How the Body Ages says we can expect subtle deficits in our memory as early as our 40’s. This may or may not be due to shrinkage, and it may or may not be accurately called a “deficit.”
I defy any 20-something to carry around in their heads even half of what I acquired in my 30’s – to include the sensation of heart-stopping panic when phone calls came in the middle of the night from local law enforcement with regard to my teenaged children. That I was able to fully dress and drive safely to the hospital and/or police station in mere minutes and then administer appropriate amounts of affection and/or chastisement in a loving and/or indubitable manner is testament to my brainpower.
From every family member’s social security number to the unwilling retention of every pertinent local, intra-national, and international phone number in my life, my brain is chocked full of both useful and useless information, the bulk of which was retained after the age of 30. Since this all came post-big brain, I’m probably doomed. I’m currently attempting to make up for this by learning the German language in the hopes that this will make me a more lovable nursing home resident.
The experience of having something right there on the tip of one’s tongue more often than not is not necessarily a sign of decline. It could be the particular piece of information you are attempting to retrieve has become existentially unnecessary and you just don’t know it yet. In time, you will forget that piece of information entirely and no longer even experience the need for it. That’s not Alzheimer’s; that’s neurological Spring-cleaning.
If we could, we’d no doubt take control over our brain’s “out with the old, in with the new” exercise by having a brain sale on our front lawns. Once and for all, we could get rid of all that superfluous stuff and open up precious brain space for more pressing matters. I imagine a good number of you would be dumping copious amounts of Saturday morning television in favor of the math you ignored/failed and could now use when attempting to make sense of your financial portfolio.
Others might do well to dump everything they’ve learned via their obsession with weight and diet. There are only two rules: 1) Burn off more calories than you consume, and 2) Consume only healthy calories. Dismiss all other pieces of information and you will free up massive amounts of brainpower, theoretically. I’ll even bet that extra knowledge weighs a pound or two.
Yes, we’re aging, and no doubt our brains are wrinkling right along with our faces, but at least we made it this far. It’s interesting how we were told throughout our school years to stop running and take our time, and now we’re judged by how quickly we accomplish several things at once. The winners in this race will be those who know it’s better to take one thing at a time.
Wisdom has its price: its package isn’t so pretty anymore and it isn’t as quick as it used to be, but I’ll take that over a firm butt and a lack of confidence. If aging means a smaller brain with more oomph to the ounce, so be it.