Age-related Dementia and Mentation

I read an article in The Independent in Saturday entitled Life ends at 45…Study reveals when our mental powers start to diminish. Oh noes! I am 68 – 23 years too late to rectify anything and I didn’t even know it! Sob.

Alphabet blocks

I have always thought that if you keep learning new things, take an interest in current affairs, try out new skills and stay active and, of course, have an hereditary disposition that appears to advance mental marbles, then you should be okay. You know, increase the mental pabulum index.  Sudoku was out, so was bridge, chess was okay but go was no go for me.

In my early 40s I went back to main stream employment and entered the arcane world of superannuation accounting. This was a new and complicated (wouldn’t you know it) section of accounting for employer funded pensions and/or lump sums for employees’ retirement. The best bit and the worst was the way the regulations kept changing and were defined by the time the particular regulation was passed in the legislature. So it was a minefield.

It was like the bloody Taxation Act. More and more little regulations were tacked onto the main legislation and had to be treated differently depending on promulgated timing. You needed a degree to deal with this stuff! Instead my employer sent me to numerous seminars and I collected a loft full of folders relating to changes, changes and more changes.

However, it did more than increase my coffee and alcohol intake. It made me think and allocate, absorb and apply different rules at different times to different clients’ needs. I learnt some good nous.

The other thing that happened, though it was later, was that I went into business for myself. I didn’t get excited by this because I quickly realised that no one is really in business for himself. All that it actually means is that you end up with many more bosses than you would ideally like and much less time for yourself.

Years later in my 60s as I was winding down from a working life, I became interested in chemistry.  This became important to me because the 20thanniversary of Chernobyl was imminent and I realised I knew zilch, zip and nada about chemistry and especially radioactivity. And there was a lot of guff in the papers that set what Carl Sagan calls the baloney detection antennae wiggling.

Carl Sagan

So I sighed and settled down to learn the totally new language of chemistry. I had no coat hangers in my head on which I could drape my new knowledge. Those hangers had to be built from scratch. Wikipedia had an article on the Periodic Table of Elements with an interactive table. It is terrific and led me in my new found interest in chemistry and the radioactive nature of different elements.

My brother’s comment:

‘Applying your brain to learning things that you don’t know creates more synapses between your brain cells and their dendrites and in learning new stuff you are keeping your brain active. Theoretically this can stave off age related dementia. ’

Age related dementia! Wow I felt better, because I had never been drawn to bingo.

Chemistry was so solitary a study in my little house. And then, wouldn’t you know, physics poked its bloody head up saying – and what about me? I have developed the best long-suffering sighing reflex ever!

But I did come across some wonderful people. Lawrence Krauss – he is known as a theoretical physicist but has taught me a lot about physics, Star Trek and the Universe from Nothing. Between him and Brian Cox I know more about cosmology than previously. Sagan is good and Stenger. I mean, there are so many knowledgeable and personable people in the popular science network that no one really has any excuse to not know things.

Lawrence Krauss:-)

Brian Cox

Back to brain power. According to the Independent article, we had been fooled by earlier research into thinking that our brains did not begin to decline until the age of 60. So I was a little late with the Periodic Table.

I did rationalise that in my 40s I had risen to the challenge of learning and understanding the ridiculous regulations that had been imposed on accountants so I was sweet.

I have now noticed that I tend to forget what I went out of the room to do so I have to come back into the room and start again! I lose the names of common objects and expressions; I don’t even try to remember phone numbers though I seem to have retained a recognition factor that intimates a memory of sorts. I always had a good memory for numbers and pattern recognition. I don’t recall quotable quotes as well as I would like and I can’t deliver memorable literary speeches as easily as I once could.

The hunter gatherer is complaining about similar things. He has (had) the most remarkable music memory that could recall music after a single listening. Now it takes 3 or 4 times to get it into his brain. He had an eidetic memory as well that could recall written pages intact in detail. It irritates him that this is going. I can understand that.

I remember a paper written in 1956 called ‘The Magical Number Seven’ by George Miller. Its postulate was that humans could hold in working memory 7 pieces of information well enough but that anything over seven was problematic. It is an extraordinary paper and one that has stayed with me all these years. Look at the wiki article to see recent updates.

One of my psych lecturers, John Ross, proved to us that planned, organised mnemonics could develop a set of about 35 (I think) ordered pieces of information. It was an eye opener for me. I had never thought of that sort of map making. Ross and a student mapped the main university layout. I couldn’t help but be impressed. I never really mastered mnemonics though; not as a proper aide-mémoire.

We don’t seem to maximise those parts of our brains that are able to develop patterns, although we are most definitely pattern making primates. My hunter gatherer seems able to tweak the music patterns in his brain that flower into a bass baritone rendition of virtually any aria that he has ever heard.I wish I had that facility. I haven’t, but I do have the capacity, interest and diligence to learn new things to the level that my interest demands.

I hope I keep my marbles. Don’t we all hope the same.


6 comments on “Age-related Dementia and Mentation

  1. Rossi Lyons says:

    I too hope to keep my marbles rolling smoothly inside my skull for as long as the body holds out. Genetics would suggest that is a reasonable possibility since my Dad’s faculties were just fading at his death at 91.
    Not only continuing to learn, but Some research suggests that learning through new modalities brings the most benefit as it lays down new pathways rather than just reinforcing the old. A little bit of insurance you might say in case of an eneurism or two. Ghastly thought but here it comes.

    • Veronique says:

      Well, Rossi, my genetic inheritance suggests the same as yours. The only problem at that point is the poor old decrepit body!.

      Rosie’s comment below is an interesting one. She walks a lot and is exposed to all the sensual nuances that attend her walks.

      Keeping active is certainly a key activity for as long as is possible. We had a friend who decided to learn to play the piano at the age of 55 (I think). Remarkable undertaking. Heart attacks do happen though and he had one while walking in the Scottish Highlands at about 70.

      So good luck and well lived lives to all of us:-)

  2. Rosie says:

    Sadly, Jeanette Winterson has reserved her rights so it is not possible to listen on iPlayer to her piece: A Bed. A Book. A Mountain. broadcast this morning and again at 00.30 Wed 11th on Radio 4. She spoke of books, and in particular one I got for Christmas The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd on the Cairngorms, as opening doors to new worlds. We can’t stay in bed and read our way to new worlds – we have to get out and into them. So that’s my thinking on Age Related Dementia and delaying strategies: not just learning about the world around us, but getting into it, smelling and listening to it as well as seeing and watching it for as long as my body permits.

    And on that subject, I was highly amused to read in December’s BMJ article ‘When balance is bias’ that the BBC refused to print Brian Cox’s response to irate astrologists. It read: “I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new age drivel in undermining the very fabric of our civilisation.”

    Isn’t it good that there are people who are willing to speak out. The article is fascinating in its clarity that scientists need to be strong enough to show that they can ‘come down on one side of a debate’.

    Inspiration and new ideas are so nourishing, and Antony Gormley [on creativity], David Kynaston, Anna Coote and Fintan O’Toole [definitely a way with words and ideas] did that for me on Start the Week yesterday, Mon 9th Jan.

    There is just so much to discover as well as to learn.

    Connected to an earlier blog V, in the same issue of the BMJ there is an excellent editorial entitled ‘Death can be our friend’.

    • Veronique says:

      Thanks Rosie. Keeping active and interested intellectually and emotionally, physically and sensually is a good way to live a life fully and with gusto!

      And thank you for the BMJ articles. I do so like Brian Cox and thoroughly enjoyed the Wonders of the Solar System. He certainly is one to stand up to the plate!

      I can recall a time when astrology fascinated me, but that has long since given way to evidenced rather than wished for explanations of human behaviour. And astrology most certainly has nothing to do with the universe.

      It is a bit like beliefs in gods. Such beliefs rest on an arrogance that we, as individuals within a universe, are important specks of sand. We are only important to ourselves and your reference to the other BMJ article on Death being a friend underpins the living of a good life and the dying a good death.

  3. Aging is like growing up, but in reverse. And as in both processes, growing up and aging takes us by surprise, because we are in the middle of it. We think we know who we are, but in reality, there is no part of us older than ten years. Looking back at my life, I realize now that there were some important plateaus, in terms of physical and mental development, but at the time, everything just seemed ordinary. Only in hindsight, was I able to note the milestones. Society has set up some crude labeling for those events, graduation, marriage, etc., but experiencing milestones are personal and individual.

    • Veronique says:

      Well Michelle, you are absolutely right of course. I always knew but hadn’t really processed the crude labelling that society uses.

      My father referred self deprecatingly to himself in his final decade as a decrepit octogenarian. And that is more labelling as well.

      All meaningful milestones are personal I would guess. And yes, I label in my own individual way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s