Mental Health in the Aging

The average life expectancy is at its highest ever in history. Brain cells are built to live up to 127 years. However, they do not divide and replicate the same way other cells do, and so their vulnerability to attack by radiation and free radicals is more problematic. Cell loss in the normal ageing brain is patchy. There is a small stock of stem cells from which neuronal regeneration is possible, but scientists are still only just learning of their full functions now. It is believed that the brain shrinks with age. Amongst European populations it can shrink by as much as 15% between the ages of fifty and sixty-five.  Much of this reduction is due to brain cells shrinking as they lose water, while the spaces in the brain (called ventricles) and the folds of the cortex (called sulci) enlarge. Blood supply also diminishes slightly with age.

Of greatest importance are the connections between nerve cells. It is these connections that must constantly battle for survival. The gift of prolonged life is not without its anxieties. We worry about losing our memory and about the reduction in our cognitive performance. While there is an increase in the range and complexity of our language, this is accompanied by an increased frequency of mistakes, forgetting words or misnaming objects. We should remind ourselves that with age, there are greater powers of reflection and contemplation. The wonderful gift of experience is to be rejoiced. The aging brain has a greater capacity to deal with complex emotions and to complement decisions with a raft of knowledge. While the ageing brain is slower, it is this slowness in decision-making that allows time for better decisions to be made—this is called wisdom.




Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health

Alzheimers Association Brain Health                                

American Society on Aging                                    

Alliance for Aging Research                                               

Cognitive and Emotional Health                             

Mental Health and Aging                                         

Aging and Mental Health                                         

Mental Health through the lifespan                         

Mental Health and Wellbeing                                              

Ageing and Mental Health                                       

Center for Mental Health and Aging                                   

Department of Aging and Mental Health   

Mental Health Tips

10 steps to better brain health:



1. A healthy diet. Glucose is the brain’s major source of energy, but a balanced diet is essential to body and brain function. Food with a low glycemic index (GI) like oats and bran as well as dark green leafy vegetables that are rich in magnesium are both believed to help brain function. Choline rich foods such as eggs and red meat are also thought to assist healthy communication between brain cells. Also, avoid substances that stress the brain and limit drugs like caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.


2. Stimulate your brain. No, put the super-charged magnetic coil down! I’m not talking about Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. I’m talking about involving yourself in new activities, playing an instrument, learning to speak a foreign language, solving brain teasers. Exercise the brain as you would the body. The Brain operates on a use-it or lose-it policy. So use it! Play sudoku, solve a crossword puzzle and test your skills at scrabble!


3. Keep a diary. A great way to deal with stress, emotional worries and to relax at the end of a hectic day or a busy week is to sit down and write. It’s a fantastic way to see what you have achieved, frame new goals and keep your emotions in balance. Also, writing notes for yourself helps convert information stored in your short-term memory to long-term memory. So get that creative energy flowing and put pen to pad!


4. Sleep well! Getting a good night sleep is essential for concentration. It has been shown that regular sleep-wake cycles are important in daily cognitive performance. Dreams may be important in the consolidation of memory. As we all know, it feels great to rise and shine after we have slept like a baby!


5. Regular exercise! It is important for your entire body. Exercise is believed to be important in maintaining neural plasticity in old age and aerobic fitness may in fact reduce the loss of brain tissue common in ageing. Exercise also releases natural hormones that lead to those ‘feel good’ sensations. Feeling good about your body is vital to brain health.


6. Regulate your couch-time. Too much TV weakens brain power. But a little TV is great mental stimulation. Balance is the key!


7. Socialise! Familiar smiles, friendly conversations and meaningful interactions are all part of a healthy lifestyle. The brain is the organ of society and socialisation is an integral part of brain health. Join a book-club, learn to dance, smile at a colleague!


8. Organisation. We all know the anxiety that misplacing the house-keys or forgetting an appointment creates. Avoid the stress and make a special place for items such as reading glasses, wallets/purses or the TV remote.


9. Relax. Spend time on a hobby, take your dog for a walk or just sit back in a comfortable armchair with a great book. Technique to relax are not only useful to reduce stress and enhance brain performance, relaxation methods have also been shown to play a positive role in emotional health. For example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to decrease the recurrence of depression. Find a stress-reducing practice that suits your lifestyle and personal taste and then devote a balanced amount of time each week to it.


10. Positive thinking. Always look on the bright side of life (someone should turn that into a song)!




Transcultural Psychiatrists would certainly have a few dilemmas with the above list. The serious Neuroanthropologist probably does too! But what the heck, I put them here just for fun! Mind you, the list might lead to some interesting questions about what could be considered the definitive TOP 10 FOR BRAIN HEALTH applicable across cultures!


And now for some links:


How Culture May effect depression diagnosis

Mental Health Resources

Mental Health

Mental Health news

Mental Health America

Neurological Examinations

Interactive Health Tutorials:

Brain, The world inside your head

Brain Fitness

Cognitive and Emotional Health

Mental Health Council of Australia

The Human Brain

Brain Food

Meditation and Depression

Brain Activity influences immune function

Food for the brain

Brain Health

The Healthy Brain Program

Feed Your Brain



Girls closing math gap?: Troubles with intelligence #1

In a January 2005 speech, Harvard President Lawrence Summers provoked the proverbial firestorm by suggesting that women lacked the ‘intrinsic aptitude’ of women for math, science and engineering (story in the Boston Globe on the incident). Summers was merely stating out loud what many people believe: that inherent differences between men and women cause significant inequalities in aptitude for math (and presumably also for art history, Coptic studies, or cultural anthropology, but they usually get a lot less attention…).

A recent report in Science by Janet S. Hyde and colleagues, ‘Gender Similarities Characterize Math Performance,’ used a mass of standardized testing data generated under the No Child Left Behind program to compare male and female performance and found that the scores were more similar than different. The gap in average performance on math tests has shrunk significantly since the 1970s, disappearing in most states and grades for which the research team could get good data. According to Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, one of the co-authors of the study: ‘Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance. But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there.’

From the way that this report has been discussed, it seems clear that the data has not settled this question in many people’s minds. Tamar Lewin of The New York Time covered the story in (‘Math Scores Show No Gap for Girls, Study Finds‘) provoking comments on a wide range of websites, including some who insisted that the team led by Hyde missed entirely the point being made by Summers or that Lewin had misread the study (some accusing her of feminist bias). In contrast, Keith J. Winstein of The Wall Street Journal focused not on the average scores, but on the results at the top end of the bell curve, writing, Boys’ Math Scores Hit Highs and Lows, which highlights the discussion of variance in boys’ scores.

Although I briefly want to go over the study and the way its being interpreted, I’m more interested in the shift in test scores over time because I think that the movements in these numbers, including gaps that disappear over time (or don’t), point to a basic problem in the tests themselves. Well, not a problem in the tests—they’re very sophisticated instruments for assessing certain kinds of performance on selected tasks—but rather with the common assumption about what these tests actually reveal and the nature of ‘math ability.’ For me, this larger point is more important for neuroanthropology because it applies to far more than just the ‘math gap.’

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Cabbies’ brains

The BBC has a nice piece covering the continuing research of Prof. Eleanor Maguire (Wellcome Institute of Neurology, University College London) on the distinctive development of the hippocampus in the brains of London taxi drivers: Taxi drivers’ brains ‘grow’ on the job. Prof. Maguire’s research in this area is pretty extensive (see publication list). She’s found a great naturally occurring experiment in the brains of cabbies who have to navigate London’s notoriously byzantine downtown streets.

As the BBC report describes, driving a cab in London is difficult and demands a well-developed knowledge of urban geography:

In order to drive a traditional black cab in London drivers have to gain “the knowledge” – an intimate acquaintance with the myriad of streets in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross.

It can take around three years of hard training, and three-quarters of those who embark on the course drop out, according to Malcolm Linskey, manager of London taxi school Knowledge Point. “There are 400 prescribed runs which you can be examined on but in reality, you can be asked to join any two points,” he told BBC News Online.

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British educational leader advocates The Matrix

The Telegraph yesterday ran with an article, Brain downloads ‘will make lessons pointless,’ about some comments made by Chris Parry, former Rear Admiral and the CEO of the Independent Schools Council. Parry believe that ‘”Matrix-style” technology would render traditional lessons obsolete,’ because we’ll soon be beaming knowledge into kids brains. Parry told the Times Educational Supplement: “It’s a very short route from wireless technology to actually getting the electrical connections in your brain to absorb that knowledge.”

Okay, you all need to help me: do I feel this under ‘hokum,’ ‘malarky,’ or ‘balderdash’? Rear Admiral Parry, sir, will the wireless technology use the brain’s Bluetooth or WiFi receptors? Which part of the brain’s RAM will you use when you install the new ‘human operating system’?

Okay, Admiral Parry, repeat after me: The brain is not a computer.

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Children integrating their senses

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchTwo of the pieces that I have wanted to discuss appear together in Current Biology, both on evidence of sensory integration in adults compared to their integration in children. Nature News carried a story about both articles, One sense at a time, by Matt Kaplan. As Kaplan explains, the research generally supports the idea that: ‘Adults readily integrate sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in their everyday lives without a second thought. But research is revealing that this is not the case with children. Two new studies hint that children under the age of eight only use one sense at a time to judge the world around them.

As I started to discuss in an earlier piece on human equilibrium (long ago — still working on parts two and three), adults learn how to weight different sensory information depending on context and the task at hand, evaluating one stream against another if they conflict. When confronted with two contradictory impressions from different senses — such as video of a person saying one thing and audio of a slightly different word — adult sensory systems figure out a way to integrate the sense world, sometimes creating ‘sensory’ compromises or syntheses. The ability to integrate sensory information is fundamental to normal human functioning, but it tends to undermine certain conceptions of brain ‘modularity,’ as I argued in the earlier post.

But with these two articles, I want to explore something a bit different, so I’m going to tackle each one individually, and then reflect on one issue that I think is important: the tendency to see child development in a teleological framework, that is, as an incomplete version of an adult system rather than as a deployment of the child’s distinctive neural resources. Before you click on ‘read more’ below though, be warned; this piece is a bit long…

Continue reading “Children integrating their senses”