An optimistic look at what current research is revealing about the brain in the final decades of life.
Whalley (Mental Health/Univ. of Aberdeen), a brain researcher working on the molecular biology of aging, holds out hope of “fitter old brains for fitter old people.” After a brief examination of theories of aging, he discusses the healthy brain and how it works. The good news: it is now clear that the brain retains some developmental capacity throughout life and that, while there is selective loss of neurons with aging, surviving brain cells make new connections, preserving the brain’s essential circuitry. The possibility that the brain may be able to compensate for its aging and that damage to brain cells may be preventable and even reversible could transform our expectations of old age, he notes. Whalley also examines the social and psychological aspects of aging, focusing on the mental abilities that change consistently with age. He addresses three questions: Is brain aging general or selective? Do brain-aging changes occur at random? Does aging drain the brain’s overall capacity? Whalley then discusses studies relevant to answering these questions. He surveys research into dementia, especially in Alzheimer’s disease, and reports on the progress being made in understanding the causes of this disorder and possible therapeutic approaches. In his final chapter, he looks at environmental influences on brain aging and considers how computer technology might enhance the psychological lives of the very old at the same time that advances in molecular biology are improving their physical lives.
Although the chapter headings often have a free-and-easy tone (“Any Cook Could Run the Country”; “Tired of Living and Scared of Dying”), the demanding text is clearly aimed at serious readers. (13 illustrations)