Keeping All Your Marbles

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Benedict Campbell. Wellcome Images

You’ve heard about it on tv, in magazines, and at conferences by motivational speakers (or is that just me?) Use it or lose it. Ugh. I feel like I’m back in high school listening to my gym teacher. It’s a solid and scientifically supported premise: the more you mentally challenge yourself, the less likely you are to fall victim to Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related memory loss. They tell you it’s because of synapses, the tiny places where your brain cells communicate. Synapses multiply when you think. They wither when you watch The Young and the Restless. (There was a summer when I was both young and restless, and did, in fact, watch the show. There’s no question I came out dumber.)

Mindless activities can be great fun. I love my tv sitcoms, dramas, and Seth Rogen movies. I don’t intend to give that up, and neither should you. But I do have unfortunate news: you brain is really, truly shrinking. I see it on the brain scan images I study – how the cortex atrophies and the holes inside the brain called the ventricles grow. By the time you’re thirty, it has already started. By fifty or sixty, forgeddaboudit!

But don’t be afraid. As we know, bigger isn’t always better. Your mind isn’t necessarily disappearing just because your brain is. And some of those ‘use it or lose it’ activities can actually be fun. If you don’t like solving crossword puzzles, you can ‘use it’ by learning to dance or paint or play an instrument. Take classes that make you think about new things. I’m taking writing classes at UCLA Extension School and have had a rollicking good time of it. (Yes, we do rollick sometimes.)

The award for super synapse-booster must go to my mother. Here’s a list of her recent classes: memoir and picture book writing,  how to be a weather spotter,  the rhetoric of US foreign policy, the Cahokia Mounds, Hollywood musicals, and the current financial crisis. Oh, and emergency response training and citizen’s police academy. That’s more than most of us have time and energy for; God knows it is for me. But I’m still going to try to form one or two new synapses a day. After that, I can watch old episodes of How I Met Your Mother to my heart’s content.

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