The Learning Curve – Aging Authentically

That Diane Keaton advert for some cream or other drives me insane. You know the one: ?Oh, I believe in aging . . . authentically.? Yeah, right. My handy well-used dictionary defines ?authentic? as ?true? and ?genuine.? I’m not sure when plastic surgery and hair dye became true and genuine, but maybe I’m just being ungracious.

After enroling in the Introduction to Human Health course (I’m a humanities major in desperate need of science credits), I started to wonder: what is ?aging authentically,? anyway? I know what aging is, but how do I know if I’m doing it right?

Enticingly, the course material promises to reveal all to me, although I rather suspect the textbook is written from the point of view of students for whom aging is some far and distant possibility, as opposed to those of us who deal with its realities on a daily basis.

I decided to take my curiosity to the Internet. Now, this is always dangerous and good for at least an afternoon of assignment procrastination as I get waylaid by sites that have nothing to do with what I’m supposedly looking for. However, I thought I’d start with how the brain ages and its effect on memory.

I was heartened to read an article on the BBC website saying new research shows we do not necessarily lose massive amounts of the little white cells as our brains age. In fact, the current thinking is that our neurons replace themselves as we get older. they’re just slower, like everything else old.

The only disconcerting fact is that scientists still aren’t sure why some of us are all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed well into our 90s, and others of us look and feel like we’ve been round the block a few times by our 60s?diet, exercise, and drinking habits notwithstanding.

As I suspected, my surfing got out of hand and I came across an article written in 2000 by Heather M. Ritenburg for the University of Regina Teaching Development Centre Newsletter. What caught my eye was her opening question: ?What options are there for university teachers when faced with mature students in an undergraduate program?? Ms. Ritenburg goes on to elaborate about her experiences as a mature student and what types of courses and professors kept her fire for learning ?kindled.?

The article got me thinking about my old brain and its memory and how it fits into a university environment; an environment that, by its very nature, needs to be focused on the young and the career oriented.

I realize that when universities talk about mature students they’re not referring to maturity at all, just the fact that the student did not come straight from high school or college, but it is a bit disconcerting to find that at Concordia University, for example, mature students are serviced by the same department that services at-risk and failed students!

Anyway, back to my afternoon of surfing: does the old memory have to let us down as we age? We all know that children can pick up a second language with ease, while I’m ready to yell profanities after studying and ?memorizing? the future perfect conditional endings in French for the hundredth time, completely confident that I won’t remember them for the exam anyway. But does it have to be that way?

My former stepson-in-law (don’t you love extended families?) who had a PhD in some exotic subject like Environmental Engineering (he designed sewer and waste systems) once used a computer analogy to explain to my husband why, in his 70s, he can’t remember things that he knows he knows (shades of Donald Rumsfeld).

?It’s no mystery, Dad,? Terry said, ?you have a 286 brain in a Pentium world. It’s all there. It just takes forever to locate the information and print it out!?

Apparently our memory starts to deteriorate, ever so slowly, around age 25. And the old saying ?use it or lose it? is truest when used in relation to the brain. Activities such as reading, puzzles, crosswords, word games, and (are you listening?) learning all contribute to a healthier, more attentive brain.

Did you know that sweating makes you smart? Now, I really got excited about this one. Do you remember another old saying, ?horses sweat, ladies glow, and gentlemen perspire?? Well personally, I should be living in a barn. Unfortunately for me, the statement relates to the body-brain connection. An article in the May/June 2004 Psychology Today magazine reported that a ?good workout may be as good for your mind as it is for your muscles.?

So there you have it: if you want to keep your brain active and healthy and your memory worth having well into your senior years, study and sweat. Not necessarily at the same time.

Maybe I should give Diane Keaton a call?