Jeffrey Kluger, in the Science/Longevity section of Time magazine (Sept. 23, 2013), delivers an intelligent and clear message: Getting old does not mean that creativity goes out the window! Bless him, I say for my cohort of people born more than 60 years ago.
How can we explain such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright, Picasso, Grandma Moses, Igor Stravinsky, Chef Paul Bocuse, Goya, Goethe, Warren Buffet, even the comedian George Burns, and so many others whose creative genius flourished in their 70s, 80s and into their 90s?
The myth that brain cells stop regenerating has now been disproven. Cortical cells do grow and repair some of what age destroys. Studies also now indicate that myelination, a process that begins in childhood and allows brain nerve fibers to perform more reliably and keep neural circuits running well, continues into the sixth and seventh decades of the human brain. Biology, in other words, helps explain why there is good news for baby boomers.
But there is more. While we gray hairs may not be able to do a Rubik's cube as fast as millennials, we have -- by dint of need -- compensated by using both the left and right brains in unison. Younger peoples' brains tend to compartmentalize these brain hemispheres, whereas when we get older the walls between them diminish and allow for verbal and non-verbal, logical and spatial, reasoning and feeling to more fully intermix and generate works that can surprise even those who produce them!
Finally, there is something to the empty nest, to no more car pools, fewer day-to-day demands (ill health of course notwithstanding), and more time to do what we want rather than what we need to do. It is hard to paint, write, design or create in any medium if your mind is cluttered with the mundane and the exigent.
This is heartening news for those whose bodies are surely aging but whose brains may still be able to pay some dividends. We can imagine that at least three factors conspire to allow for what has been called "cognitive reserve" -- the capacity to draw from our mental gas tank when we need to.
The first appears to be innate brain reserve. This means being born with more neurons and better synapses to connect them. We can think of this as better hardware. It helps to start with more cells and better wiring.
The second is how our development enhances the workings of the brain. This is closer to software capability. Higher education and more cerebral occupations are associated with greater brain resilience and capacity for repair after loss from cortical injury or cell death. It has been hard to tease out whether this is merely a function of innate brain reserve leading to more education and life stimulation but because our brain is dynamic it probably plays an independent role of its own.
The third factor is how well we maintain the "machine," the way we take care of our brains. Here is where lifestyle makes a difference. Aerobic exercise, for example, helps to enhance brain functioning. So too does a variety of mental games, second and third language development, and healthy eating (and not doing the brain harm with excesses of alcohol and other substances that can be neurotoxic). Conversely, depression and other mental disorders jam the machine and need to be detected and effectively treated, as do other medical conditions that impair cerebral blood flow and metabolism (like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases).
I have wondered how I still have the wherewithal to be writing articles like this on nights and weekends, as someone born before the baby boom and with a real day job and a few other things to do. Well, turns out that I may just be among the many with reserve that has been built up and maintained -- like a vintage car that likes to accelerate and feel the rush.
I want to thank Yaakov Stern, Ph.D., a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Columbia Psychiatry and the NYS Psychiatric Institute, for his teachings on this subject.
Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, published by WW Norton, is now available, as is his even newer book (with Jay Neugeboren and Michael Friedman), The Diagnostic Manual of Mishegas.
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.