Sunday, December 19, 2010
Book review: You can train your aging brain
Do you recall when the phrase "there's good news and bad news" first became a popular lead-in for public speakers, politicians and stand-up comics? If so, this book is written especially for and about you, but it will intrigue anyone interested in how, when and why brain functions change as we age.
Author Barbara Strauch confirms the bad news, that the older brain doesn't handle certain tasks as well as it once did: multi-tasking ("I came downstairs to start a load of laundry and get...what?"); recall ("I met that man two minutes ago -- what is his name?"); or rapid motor responses and decision making ("No way I'm playing that video game with my grandson anymore!").
But in a book that is well-researched yet fun to read, Strauch offers more hope than despair and argues that frustrating memory lapses do not necessarily point to serious mental decline associated with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
As the deputy science editor and health and medical science editor for the New York Times, Strauch knows how to root out the best and most current research. She presents her findings concisely, saving readers from slogging through pages of dry data or weeding out faux science.
She guides us through the complicated biological and hereditary bases for healthy and abnormal mental functioning, as well as environmental influences that affect aging brains in both positive and negative ways.
The main message is that despite struggling with tasks that formerly came easy, the "grown-up" brain actually does many things better than the younger brain: sorting through complicated and conflicting ideas to form valid conclusions; adapting a more positive world view (which, it turns out, helps us solve problems and may insulate us from depression, heart disease and senility); and drawing on accumulated wisdom, which Strautch refers to as cognitive reserve or brain resiliency.
She also devotes chapters on how to prevent mental decline, including the latest science on exercise, nutrition and "brain training."
The book flows nicely as Strauch quotes prominent researchers in a pleasingly conversational style, but she never obscures the most salient information. Blended with expert commentary are clever anecdotes about more ordinary folk who cope with their middle-aged foibles yet manage to do many things well.
Strauch cites one, which riveted the public with its drama and occurred, ironically, just as she completed research for this book.
In 2009, a 57-year-old US Airways pilot landed an imperiled airliner on New York's Hudson River. No tragic headlines that day, thanks to Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's ability to call on cognitive reserves and maneuver through a crisis calmly, something the grown-up brain is ideally suited for.
While this book will not make everyone who reads it a hero, or even a wiz at video games, it does offer much substantive, hopeful information about the aging brain, and that's good news for us all.