Miércoles 9 de Mayo de 2007, Ip nº 190

Forget Something? Then Read This
Por Richard A. Friedman

Quick, how many adjectives can you come up with in 30 seconds in response to the term “middle age?” No doubt your list includes such things as happy, self-aware and wise. But if you’re like the rest of the baby boomer vintage, there were probably a few less-felicitous words that popped up, too, like achy, tired and forgetful.

O.K., I’ll admit that was a sneaky question because you didn’t just tell me something about your take on being middle-aged; you told me something about the state of your brain through your verbal memory: the more words the better.

In case you didn’t know, memory trouble is right up there with insomnia and flagging libido as a source of midlife angst. After all, who among us hasn’t had an I’m-sorry-but-what’s-your-name or where-did-I-put-the-damn-keys moment by the time we reached 50?

These so-called senior moments are enough to drive many midlifers to their doctors or therapists for fear that they are literally losing their minds.

Now you have probably noticed that while you might forget someone’s name, you are not likely to forget how to brush your teeth or throw a baseball. That’s because there are different types of memory involving different brain circuits with different vulnerabilities to the effects of age and illness.

So here’s the good news: It is perfectly normal to have some changes in your ability to think as you get older, especially when it comes to declarative memory, the system that involves conscious recollection of facts and events. So the vast majority of middle-age people who can’t remember an acquaintance’s name or the details of the movie they saw last night probably have nothing wrong with them.

But if you’re having trouble recognizing friends and family or profound difficulty recalling the names of objects and places, this is cause for concern and you should see your doctor.

Can anything be done to slow or reverse normal memory loss? In brief, not much if you are talking about drugs or vitamins. But it seems that there is something much simpler and more powerful than any drug available for preserving cognition as we age: social activity.

Social scientists have long known that lack of social ties predicts mortality. In the 1970s, Dr. Lisa Berkman, now a professor of public policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, showed that men and women who lacked social connections were nearly three times as likely to die of all causes during a 10-year follow-up than those with lots of contacts.

Since then, other researchers have looked at the influence of social networks on cognitive heath. Dr. Laura Fratiglioni, a professor of medical epidemiology at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, followed a group of 1,200 healthy people for three years and found that people with a poor or limited social network were 60 percent more likely to have dementia by the end of the study.

So, does socializing make people mentally healthier, or is it that mentally healthy people are just more likely to be social to start with?

One can’t be absolutely certain of the causal direction, but this is a longitudinal study in which Dr. Fratiglioni tried to control for the many factors that could affect cognitive function at baseline — like age, education and medical status — so it really looks as if social networks protect against dementia.

Your mother-in-law still might drive you crazy, but it turns out that she, along with all your other family and friends, is really good for you.

  10/04/2007. The New York Times.