Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Article excerpt

When one is in one's seventies, as I am, one begins to fear the horror of dementia and to carry out anxious checks on one's memory to see if the brain is still working. The results in my case are not very encouraging. For example, it took me several days to remember that the film star who canoodled with Leonardo DiCaprio in the stern of the Titanic was called Kate Winslet, although I am an admirer of hers and even once met her. Nor can I remember the words of the songs and poems that I used to know by heart. Am I on my way to becoming a helpless vegetable at the mercy of resentful carers?

This is the point at which one turns to the Daily Mail for comfort. That newspaper contains so much contradictory health advice that one is as likely to find reassurance in it as to find discouragement. And so it turned out last week when it took a break from scare stories to publish a cheering little news item saying that 'older people's brains do not lose capacity - they simply take longer to process the huge amount of information gathered over a lifetime'.

According to the Mail, scientists at the German university of Tubingen found that brains work just like computers; that when they get clogged up with stuff, they need, like them, more time to find the information they are looking for. A leader of the research team said: 'The brain works slower in old age, because we have stored more information over time. The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they know more.'

That is comforting news. The team found that when a computer was fed with a small amount of intelligence, it performed with as much agility as a young person; but that when it was filled up with data, it became as slowwitted as an oldie.

On the other hand, the team failed to point out an essential difference between computers and human brains. Computers don't have to get clogged up: they can be cleared at any time of all disposable material. Brains, however, don't possess a 'delete' button. They just accumulate more and more information as the years go on, none of it ever to be expunged. And I find that the memories taking precedence in my brain are the ones that I am most eager to forget. …

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