Thursday, June 24, 2010

But where did I park my car?

I was in the editorial-page business for roughly a decade and a half, handling letters to the editor as well as writing editorials, and one thing you learn in that game is that opinions are a dime a dozen. Opinions are cheap, a colleague once said: Walk into any bar - you can get as many as you want.

But reading an article about aging and the brain reminded me that those alcohol-soaked, fuzzy opinions found in any bar aren't limited to old folks nodding on their bar stools. The opinions - the quality of thinking - hardly get better as you progress down the age scale. Bar talk is bar talk, regardless of age.

Abandoning the tavern for the laboratory, it has long been thought that, unlike in a bar, thinking ability sharply and quickly declines with age. A graph plotting the proportion of people of various ages scoring in the top 25 percent of standard lab tests of reasoning ability drops like a brick with age. Just 6 percent of people in their 50s are top scorers. For people in their 60s, it's only 4 percent.

That sounds grim, but we all know that in real life it doesn't hold water. We know too many people in middle age and beyond whose thinking, savvy and all-around smarts usually put younger people to shame. Hell, these "old farts" are running most every big company, government agency and important activity in the country.

Sharon Begley, the acclaimed science writer who wrote the Newsweek article I refer to, can't help bringing up what she calls that "inchoate thing called wisdom," But she is a font of other, more specific, information. For instance, studies show that while aging brains begin to lose the type of dendrites that do new-thing learning (old dogs, etc.), the dendrites for long-term learning never go away. That's why, perhaps, self-control and social and emotional intelligence improve with age.

Other studies suggest that there is little that is more important to keeping the brain healthy than exercise, just as it is for one's other organs.

Hmm. Exercise. I'll have to consider that. True, it is boring. But not as boring as bar talk.

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