Hope For The Older Mind — Maybe Not Clueless, Just 'Fuller'

Last week I inadvertently dropped my keys into the garbage at Starbucks.

Of course, I didn't realize it at the time, and it took about 45 minutes of retracing — back to the baristas, who said no, they'd found no keys, back to Trader Joe's, again no trace of lost keys, and back, once more, to Starbucks, where I sheepishly asked the pierced and rather dismissive coffee girl if I could rifle through the garbage. After going through several bags, I reached into the last one and there, covered in wet grinds and God knows what else, were my car keys.

At first, the incident made my heart heavy, and led me to this story line: I'm so very middle-aged and edging into cognitive decline, joining the ranks of my senior relatives who do clueless things like drop half-eaten apples into the mail box, forget their kids' birthdays, tell that story about the guy with the pig farm in Montana again and again and again. But in a slight glimmer of positivity, I thought, some part of my brain remembered that I'd thrown a few things in the garbage, and another part urged me to forge ahead, into the dank underbelly of the Starbucks trash bags, until I emerged triumphant. In other words, in a tiny, distant quadrant of my brain there was cognitive crispness, or at least a murky memory that contained the location of my keys.

And lo, in The New York Times this morning, Benedict Carey bolsters my positivity with a story headlined: The Older Mind May Just Be A Fuller Mind. OK, it's a study with no actual subjects and it's highly preliminary, but I'll take it:

"...the new report will very likely add to a growing skepticism about how steep age-related decline really is," he writes.

And here's a little background:

Scientists who study thinking and memory often make a broad distinction between “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence. The former includes short-term memory, like holding a phone number in mind, analytical reasoning, and the ability to tune out distractions, like ambient conversation. The latter is accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise.

“In essence, what Ramscar’s group is arguing is that an increase in crystallized intelligence can account for a decrease in fluid intelligence,” said Zach Hambrick, a psychologist at Michigan State University. In a variety of experiments, Dr. Hambrick and Timothy A. Salthouse of the University of Virginia have shown that crystallized knowledge (as measured by New York Times crosswords, for example) climbs sharply between ages 20 and 50 and then plateaus, even as the fluid kind (like analytical reasoning) is dropping steadily — by more than 50 percent between ages 20 and 70 in some studies...

For the time being, this new digital-era challenge to “cognitive decline” can serve as a ready-made explanation for blank moments, whether senior or otherwise.

It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much.

Maybe. But after my garbage incident, I'm not taking any chances. I vow to embrace the expert advice that regular exercise may help stave off dementia, and I'm aspiring to be more like the 94-year-old track star Olga Kotelka, who laughs often, learns new stuff along the way and looks to be having a grand old time getting older.

Headshot of Rachel Zimmerman

Rachel Zimmerman Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide. 



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