The Health of the Aging Human Brain

The topic this week was going to be municipal restructuring. Boring, I just heard someone say. But let me hasten to add the crowd of squabbling crows who live in the bush behind our house and are quickly taking over my garden (with the current emphasis on my meagre first-year crop of strawberries) agree. 

I called the crows together for a meeting yesterday evening after supper and conferred with them from the back deck overlooking the strawberry patch. A couple flew away. (Crows mate for life, by the way). Some just kept on eating. (They always leaving little shards of berry flesh to remind me who‘s boss.) But I’d like to think most were paying attention.

I asked if they didn’t think there were more important things happening in the world (theirs, mine, and yours) than municipal restructuring. They looked at each other as if to say, in so many words, are these humans stupid, or what.

And then they all took off, wheeling and soaring and yakking at each other on their way back to their roosts in the upper canopy of trees. The squabbling continued there for a while as territorial imperatives were sorted out. And then they settled in for the night. I took that as a yes.

Being so disdainfully dismissed by the crows was an eye-opener. It wasn’t long before I had gathered up a modest collection of MIMs (More Important Matters) to think and maybe write about. I give the crows most, or even all the credit; they planted the seeds; I just harvested the crop.

Now, lest anyone say that McNichol guy has finally gone completely off his rocker, let me say there’s a serious point to the above flight of fancy.

And that brings me to the first item on the list of more important things than municipal restructuring: The health of the aging human brain. Like many other people in the Grey-Bruce area, I have one.

I’ve been having a few “seniors moments” lately. If, like me, you’re a member of the baby boom generation, you may know what I mean: You walk into a room to get something, then find yourself standing in a daze wondering what it was. A while back I got a plastic container out of the cupboard for some leftover pizza sauce. But instead of the frig, the container with the sauce went back into the cupboard. We found it there two weeks later. (Note to high school students, for future science fair subject reference: Leftover pizza sauce appears to be an interesting growing medium for many varieties of fungi and heaven knows what other forms of flora and fauna.)

A few days ago my granddaughter’s bright and likeable boyfriend asked me if I read and liked Hemingway. That’s like asking me if I like motorcycles, even though I haven’t owned one for years and don’t plan to get another one, not at the prices they’re selling for these days. (I remember the time when you could buy a good, used British “650” for $400.) But the urge persists, despite the unpleasant Triumph Bonneville memories. So ask the question, and you can’t shut me up. It’s like that with Hemingway too: I’ll go on and on, just like my Dad used to, about how the famous American writer known for his sparse, period-laden writing and love of blood sports is underestimated; about how there’s a poetic level, a deep sense of tragic resignation about life in Hemingway that often gets overlooked. And no doubt I’ll talk about that day in July 1961 when I was hitchhiking through the U.S. to the west coast and an American army Sergeant just returned from a posting in Germany gave me a ride. He was driving a Volkswagen van and we were travelling through Sun Valley, Idaho and it came across the news on the radio that Hemingway had died, that he had committed suicide early that morning at his home near Ketchum. “That’s just over there,” the Sergeant said, motioning to a place out of sight, but just beyond the ridge on the passenger side of the highway.

I’ve thought many times since about that moment. I was only 18 at the time, and had read quite a few Hemingway stories (thanks to my father’s copy of a book with the title “Men without Women” that for some reason appealed to me.) But I was no expert, and I didn’t know the Nobel prize-winning writer had a home in Ketchum. Otherwise, being the impulsive babe-in-the-woods I was at the time, I might have planned to pay him a visit. I might have headed for Ketchum, knocked on his door the day before and introduced myself as a kid from Toronto who was a big fan of his work. I certainly would have told him about my father’s high regards. Who knows? But it’s probably just as well it didn‘t happen that way. Like I told Dave the boyfriend, Hemingway had worked for the Toronto Star, lived in the city for a while, and hated it. And in the weeks and months leading up to his death he was pretty crazy and especially paranoid about the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. He might have thought I was an undercover IRS agent.

Now, you see, there I go mentally wandering off. Isn’t that supposed to be another symptom of an aging brain? But, like I say, there are certain topics that turn me on. Anyway, this, finally, is the point – when young Dave asked me about a war novel Hemingway wrote, I remembered A Farewell to Arms. But I completely forgot the title of the other one, set in the Spanish Civil War. I remembered the scene where the earth moved, if you know what I mean. I even remembered Gary Cooper played the lead role in the Hollywood movie version. But try as might, no matter how many times I slapped my head, the title wasn’t there any more. But, about 10 minutes later it came forth out of some faded memory bank, and I suddenly blurted out, “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” Meanwhile, the conversation elsewhere in the car had of course moved on to other topics. The startled looks spoke volumes.

I’ve always been absent-minded, and I take some comfort in that still. I also take some comfort from the fact there can be other reasons for forgetfulness. Having too many things on your mind can be distracting. But most of all, like a lot of other people more or less my age, I suspect, I didn’t worry too much about those “seniors moments.” They were just sort of a benign thing that happens as you get older, or so I thought.

But the news this week that a study has shown they may be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease, made me sit up and take notice. Scientists in the Chicago-based study performed autopsies on the brains of 134 older people who appeared before their deaths to be mentally normal, apart from some “subtle forgetfulness.” To their surprise the researchers found more than one-third of the brains were “riddled with waxy protein clumps and other signs of degeneration that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to an Associated Press report published in this newspaper.

So how were those people able to continue functioning normally, while other elderly people with similar brain degeneration become severely debilitated? That was the big question the study raised. “There’s something about these people that allows them to have large amounts of pathology without obvious memory problems,” said Dr. David Bennett, lead author of the study and a an Alzheimer’s researcher at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago. “We need to understand why that is,” he added.

A reporter’s comment at the end of a TV news item about the study struck me as most interesting: “It’s a question of use it, or lose it.”

Again, I’m no expert, but that sounds like a common-sense truism. More and more I’ve come to believe the secret of staying as healthy as possible in the face of the aging process is to remain physically and mentally active – in a word, stimulated.

And if that means indulging in flights of fancy, like talking to crows, so be it. Don’t worry; use your imagination, by all means. Set it free. Keep the mental juices flowing. Be creative. Enjoy a good joke. Be a joker, even, as snaggelpuss used to say. (Remember him? “Forsooth, fivesooth, even.”)

Let your head play. After all, that’s how children learned to use and grow their brains. As long as you know its play, what’s the harm? It may just be the secret of eternal happiness.

And if you want to take an interest in local municipal politics, including municipal restructuring, go for it. Play with that too. It’s no end of fun.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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