Since its inception as a field of rational scientific study, medicine has accepted the degeneration of brain function in elderly people as a natural occurrence. This deterioration was thoroughly documented with “hard” findings–as we age, our brains shrink, grow lighter, and lose millions of neurons every year.
We have our full complement of neurons by age 2, and by age 30, the number starts to decline. The loss of any single brain cell is permanent, since neurons do not regenerate. On the basis of this well-known fact, brain decline seemed to be scientifically valid; sadly but inevitably, to grow old must lead to memory loss, decreased reasoning ability, impaired intelligence, and related symptoms.
These time-honored assumptions, however, have now been shown to be wrong. Careful study of healthy elderly people – as opposed to the sick, hospitalized ones whom medicine habitually studies–has revealed that 80 percent of healthy Americans, barring psychological distress (such as loneliness, depression, or lack of outside stimulation), suffer no significant memory loss as they age.
The ability to retain new information can decline, which is why old people forget phone numbers, names, and the reason for walking into a room; but the ability to remember past events, called long-term memory, actually improves.
In tests where 70-year-olds were matched with 20-year-olds, the older people performed better than the younger in this area of memory. After they practiced the other kind of memory–called short-term memory–for a few minutes every day, the older group could almost match the younger subjects, who were at their prime of mental functioning.
The secret, as with almost every other “natural” decline in old age, depends on habits of mind, not the circuitry in the nervous system.
Adapted from Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine, by Deepak Chopra (Bantam Books, 1990).