Eager to build stamina for my second-degree black belt test that’s a few months away, I drove with my friend Dan to Stairway to Heaven, a steep hiking trail in North Jersey’s Wawayanda State Park. It’s 2.6 miles in and out, with an elevation change of 889 feet. On the way there, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” started playing on Sirius XM’s Classic Vinyl channel just as we pulled into the lot of a convenience store that also had “Heaven” in its name. Dan and I grabbed pre-made sandwiches.
Hiking up the rocky trail, breathing heavily, we talked about how Joe Biden’s mental capacity was now in the news after Special Counsel Richard Hur issued a report saying criminal charges against the President over handling of classified documents weren’t warranted, with the much-noted addendum that had such charges been brought, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview with him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
Cognitive performance by the elderly is a long-standing interest of mine, including the trade-offs that occur as some capabilities decline while others tend to improve with age. The latter’s an underappreciated element. It was the focus of an excellent 2005 book, The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older, by neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg, which I favorably reviewed for Scientific American Mind, of which a blurb ended up on the paperback’s cover.
I wrote: “The brain's capacity for pattern recognition is central to Goldberg's premise. Moving through middle age and beyond, the brain develops a vast store of ‘generic memories’—knowledge of the shared patterns in events or things. This reservoir gives older people an improved ability to size up situations and solve problems without going through the step-by-step assessments a younger person might need.”
“Such pattern recognition underlies competence and expertise and can compensate for age-related declines in attention or memory. Pattern recognition can even amount to ‘wisdom’—basically, knowing what to do. The author cites various elderly achievers to demonstrate that mental vigor can persist late in life. He notes that sculptor Eduardo Chillida retained formidable abilities even as his Alzheimer's disease progressed.”
“Moreover, the brain is shaped by how it is used. For instance, musicians who practice consistently develop a larger Heschl's gyrus, an area involved in processing sound. And contrary to onetime scientific belief, the brain forms new neurons throughout adulthood. Through such observations, Goldberg emphasizes the importance of maintaining an active mind as a defense against mental decline.”
I’ve sought to put this outlook into practice in middle age, through physical activities such as karate and hiking, as well as mental ones such as learning German or studying math. Meanwhile, the relevant science in the past decade-and-a-half has only gotten stronger in support of the potential for strong cognitive performance among the elderly, and the importance of what individuals do to foster such capacity.
The National Institute on Aging notes that older adults may be slower to find words and recall names, have problems with multitasking, and “experience mild decreases in the ability to pay attention.” The agency then states: “Aging may also bring positive cognitive changes. For example, many studies have shown that older adults have larger vocabularies and greater knowledge of the depth of meaning of words than younger adults. Older adults may also have learned from their many years of accumulated knowledge and experiences. Whether and how older adults apply this knowledge, and how the brain changes as a result, is an area that researchers are actively exploring.”
Some of this research focuses on a category called “cognitive super agers,” who markedly defy expectations of cognitive decline. One study found that “super agers’ brains contained a much higher density of a particular type of cell called von Economo neurons, which are linked to social intelligence and awareness. Their brains had more of these neurons even than the brains of younger adults.” Social intelligence, in my view, is Biden’s strong point, and a reason to be skeptical of the current brouhaha.
Looking down from the Stairway to Heaven trail, it occurred to me that many people weighing in online about Biden’s mental capacity were likely sitting in front of a computer for hours. These keyboard warriors should do something more active and social to protect their own mental and physical abilities.
—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber