Who’s Got the Buttons?

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.

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26 comments on “Who’s Got the Buttons?

  1. 1
    Mary T says:

    What a thought provoking post! History comes to mind first because I have always loved everything history. I’m always looking something up.

    But digging a little deeper I think I would like a deeper understanding of Islam. Or maybe I should learn Spanish. I seem to have more and more neighbors who speak only Spanish (although their kids speak perfect English). And exactly how the heck do those 3-D printers work anyway???

    • 1.1

      Languages are near the top of my list. I’ve studied several in the classroom, but never become conversationally proficient in anything but English. Spanish is wonderfully accessible and spoken by so many… might have to start there!

  2. 2
    Susan Gorman says:

    I would love to take a creative writing course!

    The writing skills that I use at work are non -existent. The who, what when , where and how is what’s needed, understood and expected at work. I have about 200 pages of a manuscript written and 2 other books fleshed out. It’s the dialogue that’s not quite right. I can describe my characters, their conflict and have a plot ( that needs work,too) but their conversations, especially the ones that move the story forward need a life line. This week’s blog inspires me- I may look for an online class.

    Happy Mother’s Day!

    • 2.1

      Happy Mother’s Day to you, too, Sue, and to all who observe.

      My first real writing “job” was as a reporter, and while newspaper articles and interviews used quotes, that didn’t prepare me at all for dialogue in fiction. You’re smart to focus there as an author working toward publication, because–this matters–readers don’t skip dialogue. They’ll skim narrative description and internal reflection, but the talk-talk is usually read word for word.

  3. 3

    Here in the UK we are having a difficult time caring and supporting people with mental health issues.Funding does not cover what is needed and cutbacks are causing centres to close,the elderly who have dementia sometimes do not get the support they need.The N.H.S are struggling but they recently sent out a very good leaflet in the post all about illness and advise on how we can change or enhance our way of thinking in our daily lives no matter how old we are.So recently I have ‘re_stitched my buttons to make them stronger.I have added to my bucket list French lessons,art for beginners
    I have recently traced my family roots back to1775 and discovered on my paternal side that they were French.Hence the French lessons.Though I am slowing up a bit I feel it is so important to keep the mind stimulated but you must be happy doing it.Good luck.

    • 3.1

      Brenda, I was very surprised to learn that in Georgian London, most people–shopkeepers, clergyman, tradesmen and their families–would have had conversational French. London was that cosmopolitan, before being cosmopolitan was a thing. By the time of the Napoleonic wars, one-quarter of the English aristocracy had French cousins.

      That puts those wars in a different and even sadder light for me. No wonder Britain chose to take on the French armies in Spain rather than attack France itself. I could not imagine making war on my cousins.

      So, yes, please. Apprends tu le francais, and bon jour, mon ami!

  4. 4
    Teenie Marie says:

    I would like to study medieval history in depth. I have a fondness of Eleanor, Hank II and their brood and their relationship. I read anything I can get my hands on about her–she was really quite a woman–both fiction and non-fiction. I am not sure what else was happening in the world while they were battling each other and their sons and the French. BTW Empress Matilda (Hank’s Mom and MIL to Eleanor) was truly the Mother-in-Law from Hell and I wonder WHY she was the way she was.

    Happy Mother’s Day, Grace!

    • 4.1

      Happy Mother’s Day!
      My niece took it into her head to study Hildegard von Bingen, and other medieval academic women. Madam Niece was looking at (in part) how the Church went from being a rare and dedicated supporter of women’s intellectual development, to the opposite.

      Very different times. I like Scottish medieval history–back when the Outer Hebrides were Norwegian, and many Scots were emigrating to Poland. Busy, interesting times!

  5. 5
    Glenda says:

    Lately I’ve been interested in learning to speak Italian. Trying to learn a language would really taxes my brain.

    • 5.1

      It would and it wouldn’t, in that you learned a language almost before you learned anything else. You know how to do it, and you figured it out without being taught. We’re a lot smarter now about how to teach languages than we were thirty years ago.
      Most programs that I know of–where the objective is to learn the language, not merely show written proficiency in it–get you talking and listening to it as much as possible as soon as possible, just as you learned your first language as an infant. When you can communicate orally, then the written details get more emphasis.
      I like that approach–it values being able to USE the language rather than trying to impart the structure and theory first.

  6. 6
    Marianne says:

    I would like to develop a sort of alfalfa that could be overseeded… But I’ll work on my daisy chains.

    • 6.1

      Now that would be a considerable contribution, if you’re talking about overseeding a thinning alfalfa stand with more alfalfa, without causing autotoxicity. Horse people in the North East LOVE a timothy/alfalfa mix, but that’s not going to cut it for lactating dairy cows. I know out West, horses get alfalfa in quantities that would cause most Eastern horse folk to have apoplexy. But my, it does make the prettiest fodder.

      Daisy chains?

  7. 7
    Anne Egger says:

    There are so many things I’d like to do. I would like to become fluent in French. I would like to learn Italian. I would like to work on my Latin. I would like to write three novels, one romance, one Young Adult, and one Southern Gothic Novel. I would love to travel abroad. I would love to get a Master’s in History.

  8. 8
    Mary Cruickshank-Peed says:

    Gaelic and guitar. And the guitar part of that will happen more formally in the fall, tho I play around a bit now. Gaelic might just be a subconscious reason to move to Ireland… Because we loved it there when we visited…

    • 8.1

      I have never encountered anybody who says, “My visit to Ireland was awful. I never want to go there again.” Everybody has a great time, and wants to go back.
      Guess who’s going to see if she can add some Ireland to her upcoming trip to the UK?

  9. 9
    catslady says:

    An appropriate blog for me. We just put my mother in an assisted living facility (sigh). She is 94 so we’re more than grateful that she has been pretty darn good up to now. She still reads and I think that has helped immensely. Of course I’m a big reader too and I also love games of any kind and just learned a couple of new ones. I’m in two different card groups which helps keep me alert lol. They call me the ruleslady haha. I just went back to work a little over a year ago and that keeps me on my toes too.

    • 9.1

      My mom was a devoted reader. Particularly as her hearing declined, she loved being able to gobble up great books. My dad still cruises the newspaper, mostly skimming headline, but one of few ways he has any interaction with the outside world.

      I play a LOT of solitaire, but that’s not going to keep my brain limber. I must find new games, as you did, and take on new challenges as you did by going back to work. Go you!

  10. 10
    Grace's fan says:

    I looked up the earlier comments and noticed a theme, the commentators would like to write, play music or learn a new language. Me too. No wonder they and I are part of a community who share an interest in reading your books and your blogs. If I could study anything – it would be to study about how the regular folks along the silk road were impacted by the trade, oh so long ago. Of course if I could turn it into stories, it would be golden. Seems like a study of history, honing my writing skills, and traveling to some of the places on the silk road would be needed. Of course the music in all those places would under-gird these stories. Not sure if I have so much time left to do all these things, now that I am at the half-way mark in life.

    • 10.1

      The halfway mark? Well, no time like the present. My granny opened her candy store–her first business enterprise–at the age of sixty, and it supported her for the next twenty years. My sister got her PhD at age 65. My brother became a dad for the fourth time at age 68.

      My dad has been retired longer than he was employed, and I don’t want that to be me. I want to be kicking and cavorting all the way to finish line, and that means… I want to READ THOSE STORIES you are about to start writing.

      Deal?

  11. 11
    Darcy Wyant Coggins says:

    Gaelic. I so want to learn it…to speak, write and translate…

    • 11.1

      There is a whole college for you on the Isle of Skye, and they even have one week short courses that are more fun than you can possibly stand. I took Gaelic One, and most people follow up with Gaelic Two the next week (I went AWOL all over Skye). There’s a ceilidh every week, and I’ve been warned that when the fiddlers are also having their short course, the party lasts until dawn. It’s one of the cheapest ways I know to spend time in Scotland–really, truly in Scotland. They also have distance learning, Skype learning, and the cool thing is, most people on Skye speak Gaelic, so it’s immersive.

      Guess who had a good time learning a little Gaelic?
      http://www.smo.uhi.ac.uk/en/cursaichean/cursaichean-goirid/

  12. 12
    Marianne says:

    And I mean alfalfa that can be overseeded with more alfalfa.

  13. 13
    Della Snyder-Velto says:

    I think that deep in my heart, I’ve always hoped that lifelong learning, both formal and informal, will keep me young. My whole life has been about learning new things; I cannot sit still! I’m in my mid-60’s now (sigh), but haven’t slowed down on challenging myself to learn new stuff. I went back to college when I was 39 and earned a BS and MS (With Distinction) in geology and paleontology by age 48, even though I was convinced I’d been short-changed in the math gene area. I then switched jobs, from working for Grand Canyon National Park as their research coordinator to being a wildlife biologist and fire ecologist for the US Fish and wildlife Service. Notice my degrees were in geology, not biology. So I had to learn all about species and habitat conservation, all about reptiles and birds and mammal ecology, all about fire effects and fire management planning, not to mention federal and state environmental laws. Twelve years later, I’ve retired and am a volunteer paleontologist for the San Diego Natural History Museum, having finished putting together a partial skeleton of a mastodon and now beginnning on a mammoth. I’m teaching myself to play guitar, a life-long dream (shades of Joni Mitchell!) and it’s slow, but there’s hope. Back when I was in grad school in Arizona, I was so lonely one summer (without my daughter) I decided to learn how to paint with watercolor. I’ve never stopped learning how to do that, which at the worst of times is supremely frustrating and at the best of times, sublimely joyful. Last year, after 20 years of watercolor, I added pastels to my repertoire. I love watercolor, and pastels, and colored pencil, and pen and ink…art is the way I connect with my real self. Last but certainly not least, I started doing pilates about 10 years ago and become so fascinated, not to mention strong and healthy, that I decided to become a pilates instructor. I now have a tiny studio in my home and teach a few women how to keep moving. I still take a pilates class twice a week, so I can pass on new moves to my clients. My art career is coming along; I have been commissioned to paint the windmills on West Maui for the man who made it happen. And I try to spend as much time with my kids and grandkids, doing art together and taking them on nature walks. P.S. I traveled to Scotland by myself last year for an art retreat…and fell in love with the highlands. I’d love to travel there with you, Grace!

    • 13.1

      Well… I hope we can do Scotland together too! I’m in the early stages of planning a possible 2018 trip, though the political climate will be a factor in whether I float that balloon again.

      I bet if you compare yourself at mid-60s with your mom or grandma at mid-60s, you’ll see you’re building on a legacy. They were probably remarkable women for their time, but you’re out-remarkable-ing them.

      Keep it up–and let us know about West Maui. That sounds like quite the adventure.