The Lighter Side—Please Say It’s So!

Aging fallacies we want to believe.

Blanket statements—the world is full of them today. Some are as subtle as lightweight goose down. Others are heavy like those trendy weighted blankets.

An article titled, “The Brain of an Elderly Person” came my way as an email link from an old friend. With enough blanket statements to make a bunch of patchwork quilts, the writing was somewhat peculiar, yet interesting, and loaded with generalizations about aging brains.

The first claim? “The brain of an elderly person is much more plastic than is commonly believed.”

The article is attributed to a neuropsychiatrist at a clinic in India, but was circulated under the name of Dr. Kenneth Pelletier, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Tossed in—who knows why—is the unnamed director of the George Washington University College of Medicine.

 Much of the article’s research is said to have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a respected, peer-reviewed scholarly publication. One line attributed to the research: “The average age of dads is 76 years.”

Unfortunately, that’s about when the alarms should be going off in our plastic brains, but who doesn’t want to hear that an aging brain of someone over 60 has greater flexibility and is “more likely to make the right decisions,” dad or not.

The article also says that with age we’re “less exposed to negative emotions.” Wait. Does the author think we all twiddle our thumbs and spend our days watching soap operas, reading romance novels, or playing tic-tac-toe? Aren’t we endlessly susceptible to negative emotions when the roof leaks, dandelions overtake the yard, that lottery ticket isn’t a winner, or someone snags the last good parking spot at Costco during a hail storm?

If this theory is correct—that we lack negative emotions as we age—how is it that in modern times people have become so entangled in divisive political news and discussions?

For instance, Republican Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and United Nations Ambassador, recently said any politician past 75 should be tested for competence. Plenty of her elders beyond 70 had a negative reaction, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Ageism!” Sanders growled. “Some folks 40 are less competent than those who are 80.”

Haley, of course, now in her 50s, recently announced she’s running for president.

The brains of elders are “no longer as fast” as they were when they were young, the article concedes. Ah, but its author also says, “the peak of human intellectual activity occurs at about 70 years old when the brain begins to work at full strength.” Take that, Nikki Haley!

Hold on. How do we determine when we’ve reached that ever-lovin’ peak? And where’s the wisdom in all this mumbo-jumbo about a brain’s “full strength” as though it’s energized by some secret formula or maybe high-caffeine coffee?

Here’s one reassuring nugget, though: “Absent-mindedness and forgetfulness appear due to an overabundance of information. Therefore, you do not need to focus your whole life on unnecessary trifles.” No more grocery lists, perhaps?

Before you take a big sigh of relief and think this is beginning to make some sense, hold on a sec. Michael Patterson, a regular contributor to 3rd Act on the topic of brain power and mental balance, weighs in with some insights.

“Getting old doesn’t make you wise,” Patterson says. “There are as many dumb old people as there are dumb young people.”

Patterson also recommends a note of caution after discovering that Snopes, the internet’s fact-checking app, rated the information “false” and not published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“‘The Brain of an Elderly Person,’” Patterson says, raises “some interesting points, but many unsupported and of dubious validity.” He adds, “That said, I do firmly believe that brains and minds can become wiser and more creative with age.”

Still, what’s with the notion that growing old automatically makes people wise? “Younger people excel in certain fields, such as physics,” says Patterson, “while older brains excel in other fields that benefit from the accumulation of information.”

In any event, the article’s conclusion is this: “If a person leads a healthy lifestyle, moves, has a feasible physical activity, and has full mental activity, intellectual abilities do not decrease with age, but only grow, reaching a peak by the age of 80–90 years.”

Woo-hoo! That gives us all quite the goal, real or imagined.

Annie Culver developed a knack for unearthing oddball characters and improbable events as a staff writer for various newspapers. In the early 90s, she went to work for websites where she wrote sassy essays aimed at women. In recent years, she morphed into a writer for several universities in the Northwest. She retired in 2016, yet still enjoys freelancing.


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