Older really is wiser (or "I'd be at the MENSA meeting if I knew where my car keys are.")

There was an interesting piece in the New York Times last week in which Sara Reistad-Long delves into recent studies that indicate the forgetfulness plaguing me and many other writers of a certain age is actually an indication of higher brain function.

Here's a little bit fromOlder Brain Really May Be a Wiser Brain:
When older people can no longer remember names at a cocktail party, they tend to think that their brainpower is declining. But a growing number of studies suggest that this assumption is often wrong.

Instead, the research finds, the aging brain is simply taking in more data and trying to sift through a clutter of information, often to its long-term benefit.

The studies are analyzed in a new edition of a neurology book, “Progress in Brain Research.”

Some brains do deteriorate with age. Alzheimer’s disease, for example, strikes 13 percent of Americans 65 and older. But for most aging adults, the authors say, much of what occurs is a gradually widening focus of attention that makes it more difficult to latch onto just one fact, like a name or a telephone number. Although that can be frustrating, it is often useful.

“It may be that distractibility is not, in fact, a bad thing,” said Shelley H. Carson, a psychology researcher at Harvard whose work was cited in the book. “It may increase the amount of information available to the conscious mind.”

For example, in studies where subjects are asked to read passages that are interrupted with unexpected words or phrases, adults 60 and older work much more slowly than college students. Although the students plow through the texts at a consistent speed regardless of what the out-of-place words mean, older people slow down even more when the words are related to the topic at hand. That indicates that they are not just stumbling over the extra information, but are taking it in and processing it.

When both groups were later asked questions for which the out-of-place words might be answers, the older adults responded much better than the students.

“For the young people, it’s as if the distraction never happened,” said an author of the review, Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute. “But for older adults, because they’ve retained all this extra data, they’re now suddenly the better problem solvers. They can transfer the information they’ve soaked up from one situation to another.”

So here's to soaking up information, storing it in the Narnian wardrobe of our brains, and somehow, somewhere, someday, leaking it back out onto paper.

And while we're on the topic, check out this hilarious list of Things Younger Than McCain.


I like to think (mainly because I'm a couple of years older than you) that age is an advantage for most novelists and memoirists. Life experiences and a longterm worldview give writers a perspective largely missing in the young. Many of the novelists I know began publishing in their forties or their fifties and have built great careers. Certainly, it's not unusual to hear of authors in their sixties or seventies who flourish, and lately, I've been hear of nonagenarians publishing debut works!

Makes me glad I'm not a gymnast or a tennis player or something like that. In the novel biz, I still feel relatively young!

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