Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Recently, I read that a couple of well-known authors (one of them Philip Roth) have decided to stop writing novels, presumably because of advancing age. That was in 2012 when Roth was 79 years old. The other author, a woman whose name escapes me now, was slightly older. It made me sad to think they believed their age would prevent them from writing good fiction in the future.

Then, on January 27, 2014, The New York Times ran an article, “The Older Mind May Just Be a Fuller Mind,” which pointed out that the studies we’ve been reading for years about how our brain declines with age, may be just - well, wrong.

Surveys are only as good as the questions they ask and the persons they ask them of. My favorite example of how misleading that can be deals with a survey linking alcohol consumption with shorter life spans. It said that people who drank “moderately” lived longer than teetotalers, those who didn’t drink at all. A later study pointed out that the wrong question had been asked. Instead of “Do you consume alcohol heavily, moderately or not at all?” they should have asked, “Have you ever consumed alcohol?” Why? Because the earlier survey question ended up including members of AA and people whose doctors had recently advised them to quit. “Have you ever consumed alcohol?” revealed lifetime teetotalers actually lived longer than anyone else.

Scientists who were questioned for the New York Times article pointed out that earlier studies had asked the wrong question or the wrong people. The newer studies revealed that older people don’t have to lose brain function with age. When a survey used words and phrases that a 70-year-old educated person would likely know, and a separate set of words that 20-somethings would know, 75% of the difference between the groups disappeared.

Older people have lived longer (duh!) and therefore know more. That is to say, the larger the library in your mind, the longer it might take you to find a particular word. It goes without saying that many people remain quick-witted into their 90s, so individuals’ rapid (or slow) decline may have less to do with them than the study method used. For instance, early studies didn’t measure the effects of pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Laura Carstenson, a psychologist at Stanford University, found that people develop a bias toward words that have a positive association for them. Therefore, just asking them to memorize random word pairs, like “ostrich and house,” don’t reveal the actual memory of many patients and “put older people at a disadvantage.”

This digital-age challenge to “cognitive decline” serves as an explanation for so-called “senior moments.” It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much.

So, give me a minute and I’ll remember the name of that other author I mentioned in the first paragraph.


  1. Hi Phyllis,

    Your post is an eye opener. I resist making a joke here because you already have. I will say, when I was 15 I promised to tell myself when I was really really old, 50, that my memory wasn't slipping, I was that way when 15. It's true for me, there's more to access to get there. But when I was fifteen I was forgetting things like where I put something, and still do at the same rate. And names, I've always had the problem of remembering names. Recently I've taken to writing them down. It helps.

    1. Bob: I think that's a different kind of memory loss and, as you say, it happens when you're very young too. There's even a rare form where the person can't recognize faces, even of family members. Thanks for the comment.


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