To lose one’s buttons is a genteel term for the waning of mental faculties, usually at the end of life. Scary statistic: By age eighty, if present trends continue, one out of three of us will be cognitively flagging.
This issue is much on my mind, not only because my dad at 96 is losing ground both physically and mentally, but also because I make my living primarily with my brains. If they go, my earning capability, and thus my only prayer of self-sufficiency or security, goes with them.
But there is good cheer to be had, and some of it comes from the Nun Study. The Nun Study is an ongoing look (started in 1986) at the factors that predict or influence cognitive decline. So what have we learned from the nuns so far? First, we know aerobic exercise is great for the brain (oh, fudge), and that good sleep hygiene also matters A LOT (yay!). And genes matter slightly (phew!).
Among the individuals in the study, however, there were Sister Couch Potatoes who’d apparently burned the votive candle at both ends, whose autopsies revealed the physical indicators of Alzheimer’s, and yet, these women did not present with the symptoms of the disease, or presented with only mild symptoms.
Turns out, one other factor, which can trump any of the foregoing, is something called neural plasticity. (My big-word back leg just started twitching.) Neural plasticity is the ability to play fox and geese with your thinking. If you can’t recall the name of my new release, then you can bring to mind the cover. If that doesn’t work, you know it was in a series with the word “tartan” in it.
By slip-slide-slithering around in your mind, you eventually come at the answer through a side door: Elias In Love, second book in the Trouble Wears Tartan series, has a headless wedding couple on the cover, and the story has something to do with a Scottish guy in Maryland… You snatch one fact from peripheral memory and daisy-chain your way to the information you’re seeking.
But what, you ask, develops this capacity for neural plasticity?
Learning, plain and simple. Learn new stuff, and your mind stays supple. The key is to learn truly new material. Don’t just do sudoku or crossword puzzles, though those won’t hurt you. Make a stab at writing your first book, take up an instrument, tackle a foreign language. Use those buttons or lose those buttons. If you can move, if you can prioritize regular rest, if you can take on even a small educational challenge, you’ll be doing yourself and those who care about you a big favor later in life.
If you could study anything–anything in the whole world–what would it be, and how can you make a step in that direction? To one commenter, I’ll send a print copy of Elias in Love.