When "Losing it" becomes the Norm
“Not the Retiring Type”
Most mornings I wake to the soft buzz of an electric razor. My spouse operates on biorhythms that begin to pulse much earlier than mine.
I pull the comforter over my head and nestle deeper into the pillow, muffling this intrusion as I wait for the good-bye kiss that signals his departure. Then I slide softly into another hour of slumber. But there was no return to sleep on the autumn morning when that good-bye kiss woke me with a start. He was wearing shorts.
“Shorts?” I asked in disbelief. “You’re wearing shorts to work on Tuesday?” (He still goes to the office.) “It’s Friday,” he responded. “I’m playing golf today.”
Friday! How could it be that I didn’t know what day of the week it was? I’d lost three whole days while fast asleep.
“You must have been having a dream,” he suggested. It struck me more as a nightmare—a lapse of memory that does not bode well. You may think I am overreacting but this isn’t the only omen I’ve encountered.
I’ve found myself spending the first act of a local theater production mired in a struggle to remember the name of the woman who hailed in the lobby.
Not long ago I bluffed my way through an awkward encounter in the produce section of the grocery store, babbling small talk when a man I couldn’t place at all greeted me warmly and asked what I’d been up to. Self-judgment badgered me all the way home: “Not good. Not good, at all. You’re losing it, for sure.”
“It” being my mind, of course—my memory and my chances of living a productive, orderly life.
Like many in my demographic group, I’ve been on guard for this. Wary and fearful of signs of age-related cerebral slippage. Mostly, I treat the issue lightly, making self-deprecating jokes to push aside serious consideration of devastating, progressive mental losses.
But the loss of three days tipped the balance and sent me to the Internet for a diagnosis.
"Normal" brings no Reassurance
My symptoms are “normal,” I learned. Age-related memory lapses may be frustrating but they needn’t be cause for alarm. In fact, my ability to remember these incidents offers evidence of a working brain. It just works slower, apparently.
I dug deeper for clarification and found a podcast by a neuroscientist who explained that after about age 40, the insulation around the axons in the brain begins to thin.
This insulation, he said, coats the axons much as plastic wraps the wires of a stereo system to keep the signals flowing straight and strong from source to output. That made sense to me—someone old enough to remember music systems before everything went wireless.
With age, that cerebral insulation layer, called myelin or “white matter,” begins to thin. Signals take longer to find the right mental file to retrieve a name or a PIN number.
“That’s just the way of the world,” the podcaster said. “That’s the way our brain winds down before we die.”
“Old information,” scoffed University of Oregon professor emeritus Michael Posner when I asked his opinion. Decline may be “normal” but not inevitable according his research in cognitive neuroscience.
Posner, 79, is no ordinary brain scientist. He’s actually a kind of super star--recipient of the prestigious National Medal of Science, the highest honor given by the US government to scientists, and a pioneering researcher in mapping how our brains work.
I hoped Posner could reassure me about the worrisome mis-firings in my brain. I wanted to know if his own cerebral insulation showed signs of thinning as well. He smiled when I asked.
“I recognize the things that you are talking about,” he said during an interview in his Straub Hall office at the UO. “ I am aware of some reduction in speed, language comprehension, and memory.
When I give a lecture now, I need extensive notes. I used to lecture without notes. Now I need notes with names and references.”
So, perhaps Posner’s brain isn’t quite as efficient in some areas as it once was, but he doesn’t have time to fret about dementia. Although he officially retired from the classroom at age 65 he maintains a vigorous involvement in research and continues to put in 40-hour weeks at the UO.
His current research suggests it may not be age as much as inactivity that brings those physical changes in the brain that are typically considered a “normal” consequence of advanced years.
Research shows that myelin increases when we are learning new things, Posner says. Myelin or white matter appears to facilitate the efficient transfer of information from the “gray matter” of the brain. We build up a good layer of myelin as children and young adults but typically begin to lose it with age.
But is that loss inevitable with age or is it a result of a slow-down in learning?
Give Exercise and Meditation a Try
“There are many exercises--cognitive exercises for elderly people, memory training, meditation—that have been shown by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to increase white matter,” Posner says. “That probably makes false the idea that there is nothing you can do to stop demyelination.”
Posner’s current research with scientist Yi-Yuan Tang, a colleague and former visiting professor at the UO, shows that mindfulness meditation may be an effective tool for increasing white matter in the brain. Results are promising but not conclusive, he cautions.
It’s unclear whether it’s the meditation—slowing the brain into theta rhythms—that brings the change in myelination, or simply the process of learning a new behavior that rebuilds insulation. And does an increase in white matter translate to improved memory? Well, there’s a question to fuel grant applications for years to come.
Grants from the National Institutes of Health and Office of Naval Research support two projects now active, and Posner has applications out for grants that will keep him searching for answers at least five more years.
“I don’t have a clear plan beyond that, but expect I will find a way to continue my efforts,” he says.
What is clear is that Posner shows no loss of the passion and intellectual curiosity that drew him to brain science.
Posner joined the UO Department of Psychology in 1965 and built a national reputation by introducing the use of MRI technology to track activity in the brain. During his tenure at the UO, he also guided development of cognitive neuroscience programs at other institutions as visiting professor.
Encouraging as his current research is in supporting mindfulness meditation for sustained brain function, Posner hasn’t made it part of his personal maintenance routine.
“I think our work on meditation is showing an effective way to maintain mental processes. I just have not added it to my schedule. I’m not exactly sure why not.”
It’s physical activity instead that takes a priority in his free time. On work days, he crosses the street from his office for cardio and strength workouts at the UO student recreation center. On weekends, he and wife Sharon retreat to a yurt in the forest of the Yachats River valley where exercise consists of chopping firewood and restoring a salmon stream.
“Physical exercise, aerobic exercise, is very important,” Posner says. “There’s a lot of evidence it helps reduce the devastating aspects of aging, physically and cognitively. But there’s a lot of luck involved, as well.”
Luck! Not exactly the assurance I’d been seeking from Posner. But maybe luck was on my side. I could almost feel the myelin layer plumping in my brain as I scrambled to keep up with his cerebral experiments and explorations. New words and unfamiliar processes propelled me into a learning experience.
Will this improve my odds of retrieving a name more quickly tomorrow, or knowing the day of the week? Now, that would be good luck, indeed.
Carolyn Scott Kortge, of Eugene, is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and
author of “The Spirited Walker.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column appeared in the Register-Guard on Sunday, November 15, 2015