Science: Age before beauty

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE; PITCHING GREY MATTER AGAINST GREY HAIR
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The Independent Culture
YES, IT was marvellous that a lady whose age would normally be regarded as taking her beyond her salad days, was able to pose, in a bra, for a poster furthering the merits of the "aged". But what a dampener the word can be: in a society where newness is championed along with the corollary properties of excessive energy and a flawless smile, the idea of anything grey - be it skin tone, hair, or suit colour - is the ultimate horror. Ageism is arguably one of the most sinister forms of discrimination today because it is the least acknowledged and implicitly subscribed to by the largest percentage of our population.

As a neuroscientist I have no more insight into or ability to combat the social and economic knock-ons of ageism, than any other ordinary mortal. On the other hand, I do know that there is one good thing, in fact the very best thing, about you, that is "grey": the substance that lies between your ears.

The assumption that Young is Best is lopsided. True, a young person may learn to drive faster but they don't necessarily end up driving better. Fast reactions on their own are, of course, to be desired, but as we all know it is experience of reading the road that can be incalculable in value. Experience is the element lacking in a newly minted brain. There is certainly efficiency, energy and exuberance - even a phrase "exuberant sprouting" to describe the forging of supernumerary connections between brain cells. But what happens next?

The connections in certain neuronal circuits can become redundant and atrophied if they are not constantly used. So, as we live out our daily lives, gradually the connections start to mirror ever more precisely our experiences and memories. In turn, that unique constellation of connections will reflect back and influence how we subsequently perceive and interpret the world. The more we live, the more every object and person and event will have a "meaning", a meaning that becomes ever more grounded in comparisons with previous events, people and processes, and eventually leads to generalisations generated from the mass of experiences that we have accumulated. I like to think of this dialogue between an individual's brain and the outside world, where each is influenced by the other, as tantamount to the growth of "wisdom". Young prodigies, for example, are usually accomplished in a discipline such as mathematics which by virtue of its abstract nature does not rely on this type of cross referencing and theme or pattern development. How many 12-years-olds excel at philosophy, history or politics? They just do not have the experience, wisdom, nor, I would argue, the neuronal inner resources that can only be accomplished by a lifetime of living.

When I worked in Paris, I was pleased to find that French men, unlike their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, prize women of a maturity that would physically disqualify them from the wolf-whistles and smacking lips of the UK Male. The reason? Older women are thought of as more interesting than those whose number of wrinkles and grey hairs corresponds to the number of subjects she can talk about. Although it may not please the cosmetics or fashion industries, it would be marvellous if we could turn attention from fretting about a youth we will all leave behind and concentrate on the next stage, having and using experience. If wisdom was given a greater premium than having puppy-dog energy and fast reactions, then those who feel embarrassed and ashamed to admit they have lived a long time, might start to exercise, literally, the benefits of that experience. For it is only by getting older that we can develop our brains, the only truly unique part of our bodies. Should we not prize it higher than young looking breasts? Forget about work-out videos for muscles, what about marketing one for exercising the brain?

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