It took me a day and half to recall the names of a couple of friends who moved out of Ohio a dozen or so years ago. And only then because I happened to be driving past the engineering company where the husband used to work. Just like that, I blurted out the names and couldn’t suppress a triumphant grin. Thank goodness, something upstairs was still functioning. Of course, it would have helped greatly if the names had rolled off my tongue when it mattered among old friends reminiscing.
You wouldn’t think triumph comes that easily, but then you might not have had reason lately to question your mind, either, to wonder why it didn’t register until five seconds after you’d slammed the car door that the keys you set so carefully on the passenger seat were the same ones you would need to get back into the car and into the house.
Drag a name out of the recesses, and you might grin the grin of reassurance, too. That is, if some of the research findings on aging don’t put a damper on it. Take a recent report I saw on the Washington Post website about a research study conducted by Mehmet Somel, a computational biologist at the University of California Berkeley. The study found the female brain appears to age faster than the male brain.
Somel and his colleagues examined a set of molecules in the brain (the transcriptome) that reflect changes in genes that become active or inactive as people age. They discovered that the pattern of age-related gene activity seems to advance faster in women. Also, that the premature aging is most evident in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved with basic cognitive and social behaviors.
Now, if you are a woman, that can’t be very comforting. We have grown up knowing from reliable sources that all things being equal, we are likely to outlive our male counterparts by quite a few years. To infer from the study, we go gentle into that good night at some disadvantage: We start losing our marbles earlier. If this is a biological quid pro quo, it doesn’t sound like much of a bargain. (One source of comfort: The study compared gene activity in 55 male and female brains of different ages. Out of the universe of aging brains, 55 does not seem to be a huge sample worth fretting over.)
“Not all organs within an individual age at the same rate,” Somel observed. True enough. People don’t age in the same way or in the same sequence. Which reminds me of the joke about the elderly lady who went to the doctor complaining about pain in her knee. She had no problems with the left knee, she said, but the right knee was killing her. After an examination, the doctor wrote her a prescription and told her not to worry because her difficulty was age-related. To which the woman responded that her left knee was the same age as her right. So much for generalizing.
But why would the female brain age at a faster rate than the male brain? The researcher suggests it could be that women are living under “a higher stress load.”
Higher stress load? That notion was another surprise. Haven’t generations of girls grown up with the understanding their menfolk bear the heavier burden of stress because society expects them to be superlative breadwinners, protectors of the homestead and the fatherland? The stress of living up to societal demands was what drove men to an early grave, hasn’t that been the explanation, the long and short of why women on the average outlive them?
Clearly, high loads of stress do nobody any good, man or woman. It would be foolishness to quibble about which sex has the higher stress load (though the subject could make for a lively after-dinner conversation), but as women reach parity with men as workers outside the home, it probably should be little surprise if the additional stress levels are contributing to faster declines in gene activity in the female brain. It’s a scary thought — that the stressing out over whether you are losing your mind could very well be hastening your losing it.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.