Language and Communication: Keeping the Brain Young

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Language and Communication
06 January 2010
Keeping the brain young
You hear the same complaint all the time as people get older: “My memory is terrible.” Is it all in the mind, or do real changes take place in the brain with age to justify such grumbling? The depressing answer is that the brain’s cells, the neurons, die and decline in efficiency with age. Professor Arthur Shimamura, of the University of California at Berkeley, says there are three main ways in which mental function changes. The first is mental speed, for example, how quickly you can react to fast-moving incidents on the road. Drivers in their late teens react quickly but tend to drive too fast, while the over sixties are more cautious but react more slowly. The near-inevitable slowing with age also partly explains why soccer players are seen as old in their thirties, while golf professionals are still in their prime at that age. This type of mental slowing results from a reduction in the efficiency with which the brain’s neurons work. The fact that adults find it harder to learn musical instruments than children points to a second type of mental loss with age – a reduction in learning capacity. The parts of the brain known as the temporal lobes control new learning, and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of ageing. This means that, as we get older, we take longer to learn a new language, are slower to master new routines and technologies at work, and we have to rely more on diaries and other mental aids. “Working memory” is the third brain system which is vulnerable to the effects of ageing. Working memory is the brain’s “blackboard”, where we juggle from moment to moment the things we have to keep in mind when solving problems, planning tasks and generally organizing our day-to-day life. Absent-mindedness occurs at all ages because of imperfections in the working memory system – so, for instance, you may continually lose your glasses, or find yourself walking into a room of your...
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