George Burns the American comedian once joked that he had just turned 80 and could still do everything he did when he was 21. He then added he didn’t do much when he was 21 either.
In 2014 Dr Michael Ranscar of the University of Tübingen, Germany, a specialist in quantitative linguistics, participated in a BBC Radio Four Frontiers programme about cognition and ageing. He claimed we should disregard most of the findings and theories about cognition and ageing we have heard so far, even the evidence for physical changes in the brain. He pointed out that the older we get the more knowledge we have – “tons and tons more knowledge and memories” – so accessing those memories is not going to be as easy as if you have little or no knowledge. If we accept this then what’s happening with ageing is not degeneration at all. Even if experiments with older people control for the different ways that people learn, Ranscar’s research has found there’s nothing left to account for. Across a lifetime learning imposes very pressing demands, and so given the vast amounts of data stored by a brain that’s been around several decades absorbing facts, events and memories, slowing is exactly what we would expect. He stated that when you fumble for a name or word, the conventional view is your brain has declined, but in his view you’re just looking for it : “You have more research to do.”
His first paper on this topic provoked some experts to dismiss his work, but it has fueled a heated discussion among neuroscientists. Some are agreeing the brain can be compared to a computer which when new will function very fast because it is almost empty, but will not be of much practical use with nothing in it.
An overheard conversation on a bus went like this :
Middle-aged woman : “I find I am forgetting things.”
Elderly woman : “When you were a kid did you ever forget anything?”
Middle-aged woman : “Yes. But I think I might be losing my mind.”
Elderly woman : “When you were a young woman did you ever forget anything?”
Middle-aged woman : “Yes, but…”
Elderly woman: “Well then don’t you think you might forget some stuff now?”
Word association tests show older people have more difficulty in remembering pairs of words which have no obvious connection. However, the suggestion is now being made that older people have learnt simply not to pay attention to pointless information. The ability to select what information is worth storing comes with experience.
If we find we are becoming forgetful, let us congratulate ourselves. It means we have a well-stocked brain.