Several months ago, I promised you a “TOP TEN LIST” OF “Misconceptions, by scientists and the public, about the neurological bases of memory/cognitive losses in aging”.  So far, I’ve only managed to write down two of them — even while some of you visitors have repeatedly chided me for not keeping my promise!  Okay, okay, put down that cudgel!

Before I continue, let me remind you of our two earlier entries…….

MISCONCEPTION 1: <strong>Memory and cognitive losses have a global cause. If we address that cause, voila! No more problem! </strong>

Don’t believe it.  There are MULTIPLE/MANIFOLD/A ZILLION causes of functional neurological decline as we grow older (see November 7 post).

MISCONCEPTION 2: <strong>Memory (cognitive ability, executive control, motor control, whatever) resides in a place(s). If we fix that (those) place(s), we fix memory (our failing faculties).</strong>

Again, as I’ve explained earlier, our losses apply broadly to all levels of perceptual, cognitive, executive and motor control abilities, and extend across all of our brain’s processing ‘modes’ (e.g., vision, hearing, somatosensation, proproception, balance, etc., etc.).  There is no single, simple solution for addressing the many problems that limit the performance of an older brain (see December 5 post).

Which leads us to a third misconception, widespread in the aging research community: <strong>Your old brain is heading downhill and their isn’t much that can be done about it except

A) PRACTICE WHAT YOU CAN’T DO (remember, think, act); and/or
b) “work around” (learn new tricks to compensate for) your cognitive losses.</strong>

To a large extent, “cognitive training” programs focus on pounding on what you can’t do.  Can’t remember?  Practice remembering.  Can’t think straight?  Practice thinking, straight.  Can’t whistle Dixie?  Practice whistling Dixie.  OR

Can’t remember?  Let’s learn a few memory tricks, because your memory is shot, and it cannot really be counted on to improve, but memory operations CAN be improved by learning new remembering strategies.  Can’t solve a puzzle?  Let’s learn about a few tricks that can help you solve puzzles, because your reasoning powers are shot, and really can’t be counted on to improve, but puzzle solving tricks can help you get the answer right.  Can’t whistle Dixie?  Maybe you can learn to play it on your harmonica.

There is always some neurological value derived from intensively working at (“practicing”) remembering or thinking or acting.  At the same time, such training by itself does not usually address the fundamental problems that limit these key behaviors.  To a large extent, your inability to remember or reason or act stems as much or more from the fact that your older brain represents information that it is trying to remember or manipulate in thought or employ to guide action in a ‘fuzzy’ manner.  Intensively practicing these “higher order” behaviors is akin to kicking a dead horse.  Only more complete training targeting more fundamental skills and abilities (anti-fuzz re-sharpening and re-strengthening) can assure a true neurological recovery of these declining abilities.

It is also absolutely and unequivocally true that developing new strategies for remembering or thinking or producing “Dixie” can be useful for you, at any age.   HOWEVER, it is also true, as we’ve just argued, that these skills and abilities can be DIRECTLY improved by re-strengthening and re-refining the critical brain processes that support them.  YOU CAN IMPROVE AT ALMOST ANY FUNDAMENTAL ABILITY AT ALMOST ANY AGE.  Your capacities for improvement INCLUDES the key fundamental abilities that critically support remembering or reasoning or fine motor control.

The National Institute of Aging and the private sector have made a substantial investment in pursuing compensatory brain-help strategies.  They imagine an environment chock full of aids that directly accomplish or simplify everything for the older person short of breaking wind, and that load each us up with a rich array of clever tricks to substitute for our failing neurology.  This money is substantially mis-directed, in two respects.

First, the less you (your brain) do(es) for itself, to help and invigorate itself, the faster you can expect it to lose its way.

Second, all of this money would be better spent toward research designed to further inform us how to drive our brains in positive corrective directions that still more richly contribute to better memories, faster and more competent thinking, and stronger, more refined and more flexible control of our actions.