Friday, April 16, 2010

Coping with our aging brains. There's good news.

Quote of the day: "It's only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth - and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had." - Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Swiss pyschiatrist, (1926-2004).


After a week when I rushed to an appointment only to learn that I had the wrong day, I was comforted by a rebroadcast radio interview with psychiatrist and brain expert, Dr. Gene Cohen. Cohen, who died last year at 65 of prostate cancer, reassured National Public Radio interviewer Terry Gross that older brains over 50 are in some ways more flexible than younger brains. For what we lose in short-term memory acuity we gain in overall cognitive power, he explained. In other words on a range of topcis we make better decisions than we did when we were 20. And by the way we aren't losing brain cells as we age. We just use them differently.
Walking into a room and forgetting why you are there is normal, Cohen told Gross. Failing to recall the name of someone you've known for a long time is normal. Forgetting that you put something on the stove to cook is not necessarily a sign that you're heading toward an Alzheimer's care facility.
The reason I mention this is that we women near retirement are in many ways at the top of our game in terms of smarts, confidence, creativity and energy. Yes, 60 is the new 50 or how about 40!
Fact: A healthy 65-year-old American woman has a 50 percent change of living beyond age 88 and a 25 percent chance of living beyond 94, according to recent research from New York Life Insurance Co.
When my friends ask me how my retirement is going, I respond, "What retirement? I'm just reinventing myself." I tell them that I don't yet know what I'll end up doing, but I know it will be something interesting, creative and challenging. I have many role models from whom to choose:
- Georgia O'Keeffe, the avant artist, painted until a few weeks before her death at 98. When her vision began to fail at 85, O'Keeffe hired an assistant to help execute her artistic ideas.
- Madame Marie Curie, died prematurely at age 66 from cancer caused by her exposure to radiation. She was fully engaged in her work until the end.
- Eleanor Roosevelt lived to 78, active to the last moment writing and lecturing.
- The last book written by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, psychiatrist and author of "On Death and Dying," was published following her death at age 78.
Nobody told these women that at 65 they should stop what they were doing, plant flowers and leave real work to others. The fact that we might become a bit more forgetful should have no bearing on our real intellectual power, our drive or capacity for achievement.
Dr. Cohen' s life research emphsized that old brains can learn new tricks. "Single-handedly he changed the image of aging from a period of senescence to a period of creativity," said Dr. Walter Reich, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, in a obituary written at Cohen's death last year. "Drawing on the results of two groundbreaking studies, Cohen illustrated that the years after age 65 are anything but "retiring," and that creativity, intellectual growth and more satisfying relationships can blossom at any age." That's just what I needed to hear.
To read Cohen's "The Mature Mind: The Positive power of the Aging Brain," Click here.

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