by Stan Cutler

A “superager” is someone over 80 years old without memory loss. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brains of such people are measurably different from those whose memory deteriorates with age.

There’s a patch in the frontal cortex, the anterior singular region, that is significantly thicker in superagers than in people whose cognitive abilities are diminishing. I don’t think it’s solely a neurological issue. I choose to believe that we are not passive victims of our genes, that brain health is a result, not a cause, that the thicker patches are the consequence of lifelong curiosity.

The brain is plastic, continually forming new neural networks. When we process information, we integrate it with existing networks of memory, fitting it into learned patterns. It’s the brain making sense. New information demands new neural networks. Curiosity, the desire to learn new things, drives lifelong learning. The more curious you are, the more you seek new information, the more plastic your brain. My unproven assumption is that curious people retain their memory longer.

There are indications that the kind of learning we do communally, the kind that happens in classrooms and lecture halls, is better for your brain than solitary learning. Brain cells called von Economo neurons are associated with social function. Curiously (pun intended), von Economo neurons are conspicuously abundant in the brains of highly intelligent social animals like whales, elephants and other apes.

Among superagers, von Economo neurons are three to five times more abundant than in the brains of most elderly individuals. These two factors, the thick spot and the number of social neurons, are highly correlated. In other words, it’s good to keep learning, and even better if you do it around other people.

There are other neurological characteristics of superagers. The top layer of their brain, the midsingulate cortex, is less atrophied than in “normal” brains. This is true of superagers even if their brains contain the kind of plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. It’s possible that lifelong learning retards and/or compensates for the destructive plaques.

Some budget-cutting politicians promote “distant learning” and home-schooling as an alternative to public schools and libraries. I’d like to smack them on their pointy heads with a dictionary. Information received in a group is energized, somehow more easily learned because, as social of animals, we’re wired that way.

Here in Chestnut Hill, the Friends of the Library are attempting to fill the unhealthy void politicians leave by underfunding public schools and libraries. We will be offering another Speakers’ Series in the Fall. It would be good for you, like chicken soup, to attend. Also, we need you to consider being a featured speaker.

Are you an educator, either active or retired, who wants to give a lecture on the most important things you know? Are you a creative professional, a writer or artist, who wants to share your work? Are you a business professional who has learned secrets of success that you think everyone ought to know? Describe your topic and why it is of interest on the “Contact” page of CHLibraryFriends.org

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