A Sharper Mind, Middle Age and Beyond

– Having just finished with a job at a computer software company where the average age of the people must have been in the early thirties (I’m currently 64), I’ve had a good look recently at what sorts of software engineering activities I still felt competent at and which I felt weak on compared to my fellow workers.

– I don’t know if this would relate for others at my age in the same situation but I definitely felt slower at absorbing new technical skills like learning to program in PERL and in working out how to get things done in Linux (I’ve been a Windows person most of my career).  

– I also felt that my ability to retain the ‘big picture’ with regard to the large C/C++ program I worked on daily was less than I would have liked.

– But, when it came time to design a specific solutions to solve problems or add a new features or capabilities, I felt quite strong and confident of my abilities.

– One thing I believe, and I think the article, below supports it, is that by using my brain constantly in these sorts of pursuits, I am and have been doing myself a favor with regard to how successfully I will retain my cognitive abilities as I age.

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In 1905, at age 55, Sir William Osler, the most influential physician of his era, decided to retire from the medical faculty of Johns Hopkins. In a farewell speech, Osler talked about the link between age and accomplishment: The “effective, moving, vitalizing work of the world is done between the ages of 25 and 40 — these 15 golden years of plenty.”

In comparison, he noted, “men above 40 years of age” are useless. As for those over 60, there would be an “incalculable benefit” in “commercial, political and professional life, if, as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age.”

Although such views did not prevent the doctor from going on to accept a post at Oxford University, one he retained until his death at age 70, his contention that brainpower, creativity and innovation have an early expiration date was, unfortunately, widely accepted by others. Until recently, neurologists believed that brain cells died off without being replaced. Psychologists affirmed the supposition by maintaining that the ability to learn trudged steadfastly downward through the years.

Of course, certain capabilities fall off as you approach 50. Memories of where you left the keys or parked the car mysteriously vanish. Words suddenly go into hiding as you struggle to remember the guy, you know, in that movie, what was it called? And calculating the tip on your dinner check seems to take longer than it used to.

Yet it is also true that there is no preordained march toward senescence.

Some people are much better than their peers at delaying age-related declines in memoryand calculating speed. What researchers want to know is why. Why does your 70-year-old neighbor score half her age on a memory test, while you, at 40, have the memory of a senior citizen? If investigators could better detect what protects one person’s mental strengths or chips away at another’s, then perhaps they could devise a program to halt or reverse decline and even shore up improvements.

As it turns out, one essential element of mental fitness has already been identified. “Education seems to be an elixir that can bring us a healthy body and mind throughout adulthood and even a longer life,” says Margie E. Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University who specializes in aging. For those in midlife and beyond, a college degree appears to slow the brain’s aging process by up to a decade, adding a new twist to the cost-benefit analysis of higher education — for young students as well as those thinking about returning to school.

– More…


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