By Larry Upshaw
“Talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.” A prominent psychologist made this claim, relying on a frustrating cultural cliché of mind-weak older people.
We must admit that young, creative people have the edge in stamina. Novelist Jonathan Safran Foer wrote his 2002 bestseller “Everything is Illuminated” when he was 19. And Stephen King published “Carrie,” “Salem’s Lot” and “The Shining” before he was 30. Somehow, though, we forget that Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at age 58 and Laura Ingalls Wilder completed her “Little House” series at age 76.
We search for effective ways to combat aging. On the physical side, we pack fitness centers to aim for peak performance by strengthening muscles and building endurance.
We also have what you might call mental gymnasia. For a small monthly fee, websites like Lumosity.com and MyBrainTrainer.com promise to enhance memory, attention and other mental processes through a series of games and brain teasers. They fit perfectly with our instant gratification culture, providing ready-made mind exercises for people who worry that time is catching up with them.
Groups like Ageless Authors, the nationwide organization of senior writers age 65 and older, suggest people can work their brains to stay sharp into old age. A 2013 study published in the journal Neurology confirms that reading and writing books slows down cognitive decline in old age. Those who participate in these mentally stimulating activities over their lifetimes have a striking edge in memory and mental agility over those who never read or write. Those who continue to read and write well into old age suffer 48% less memory loss, dementia and other mental impairment than those who don’t take part in these activities.
Ageless Authors promotes and encourages reading and writing as long as possible. For writers, the organization conducts writing contests, publishes anthologies of the best work of senior writers and helps many of those writers publish their own works. For people content to read good writing, the organization encourages people to volunteer as judges for these contests. Judges not only read and comprehend the subject matter, they evaluate its quality and are encouraged to suggest better ways to approach writing problems.
In a Smithsonian.com article explaining the value of reading and writing, journalist Marina Koren writes:
“Reading gives our brains a workout because comprehending text requires more mental energy than, for example, processing an image on a television screen. Reading exercises our working memory, which actively processes and stores new information …. Writing can be likened to practice: the more we rehearse the perfect squat, the better our form becomes, tightening all the right muscles. Writing helps us consolidate new information for the times we may need to recall it, which boosts our memory skills.”
The key to mental acuity is the same as physical superiority over the long haul; start your exercises (reading and writing) early and stick with them throughout your life. A 2009 study of 2,000 people aged 18 to 60 found that mental agility peaks at age 22. How quickly reasoning, spatial visualization and speed of thought begin to decline is up to you.
Senior readers and writers are doing everything possible to retard aging. When forced to look up a word that was in their active vocabulary just a decade ago, or when they confuse John Irving with John Grisham, they can be content knowing that most of their contemporaries have it much worse.
Many elders have forgotten the word (or the thought) entirely.
Larry Upshaw is Executive Director of Ageless Authors, an international group exclusively for senior writers age 65 and older. This group is now conducting its third annual writing contest awarding cash prizes and publishing. Deadline is March 15. Visit agelessauthors.com/current-contests/ to submit stories or volunteer as a judge in the contest. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.