Cusp

How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

What Really Goes on in the Aging Brain?

Age-related intellectual changes might cut more deeply than we like to admit.

I had carefully chosen the movie to take my mother to last weekend. I figured that a foreign film would mean subtitles, thus getting around the possibility that she wouldn't be able to hear. I also figured, based on the reviews, that Like Father, Like Son would be gentle, easy-to-follow, and probably thought-provoking. An added plus: It was playing at our local movie theatre at 11 A.M. on a Sunday.

The film is about a young Japanese couple with a six-year-old son they adore, who are suddenly told that this boy had been given to them mistakenly at the hospital, which had switched two newborn babies at birth. What to do, then—keep the boy they had grown to love for the past six years, or switch him for the one that was biologically theirs? I figured the plot would raise the kind of topics my mother has always loved to talk about—nature versus nurture, what makes us who we are, the perfectability of the human heart.

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She was good company, even if at 89 she took her time getting in and out of the car or up and down the escalator; she seemed pretty excited to be out at the movies and to be out with my husband and me. But when the lights came up at the end of the film—a film which, by the way, was quite affecting, beautifully acted, and elegantly told—she turned to me and said, "I was lost; I couldn't follow it at all."

This is a woman who, feeling hemmed-in by her ordinary working-class immigrant family in Brooklyn, devoured the public library's copies of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Thomas Wolfe through her teens and twenties; who read the New Yorker cover to cover for as long as I can remember; who always knew what had been in the New York Times that day, and always had a strong opinion about it; who was happiest when she was at an art museum, a Broadway play, or, on a few occasions in her life, traveling with my father in Europe. Now she couldn't follow the simple chronology of a very simple film.

What worries her most about aging, she's always told my brother and me, is the prospect of losing "my head." "If you don't have your head, who are you?" she occasionally asks. That's it, exactly. If you don't have a lively interior life and a recollection of all the experiences that made it amount to something, what DO you have?

Today an article in the New York Times seemed to suggest that the cognitive losses of aging might not be as big a deal as we once thought—that they might actually be the result of having accumulated so much information that retrieving it is just a little slower. Maybe because it came on the heels of my movie escapade with my mother, it seemed to me that the author of the article was straining a little too hard to find something upbeat to say.

The piece described a study that used Big Data to simulate the over-large vocabulary of a typical educated oldster, compared to the smaller vocabulary of a typical educated twentysomething. Grabbing a word from the bigger database took a longer time than grabbing one from the smaller database. It was kind of self-evident and basically a computer model of something people have suspected for a while: that while an old person's fluid intelligence (speed, analytic reasoning, short-term memory) might decline, his or her crystallized intelligence (knowledge, vocabulary, expertise) actually grew. And it suggested something else: that the increase in crystallized intelligence might actually CAUSE the decline in fluid intelligence. (To know whether this really applies to humans, of course, it will have to be tested in humans and not just run on a database.)

But fluid intelligence isn't exactly what I'm worried about in my mother's case anyway. What happened at the movies wasn't a delay in simple word retrieval, which is annoying but benign. It was not even, really, a matter of a broader, scarier kind of forgetfulness. What happened was loss of the ability to think coherently, to follow a narrative, to hold a thought and add another thought to it, and then another. This is the stuff of an intellectual life, which has always been so important to my mother. If she can't read a novel or carry on an interesting conversation, if she can't follow even the most basic movie plot, she'll be losing some of the few elements of her life that, for as long as I've known her, have made it worth living.

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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