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Q&A: Expert on aging brain explains what's going on

The secret to remembering an appointment? Just jot it down
 Posted: 2:00 AM October 25, 2012

Writer Judith Horstman has benefited from an active mind. The former Washington, D.C., news correspondent and Oregon State University journalism professor has written numerous articles and books on health and medicine.

On Sunday, Oct. 28, the Fulbright scholar who helped establish the American Journalism Center in Budapest, Hungary and wrote and edited for Time Inc.'s Health, Stanford University Medical Center News Office, the Harvard Health Letter and Johns Hopkins White Papers, will be speaking at the Southern Oregon University campus about keeping our brains healthy as we get older.

During the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute's forum, she will present current neuroscience research and practical advice on the well-aged brain. Days before her appearance, Horstman, 72, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., was asked by the Daily Tidings about what to do when the brain feels a little foggy and other tricks to preserving a rich and varied mental life. She quickly shot back these responses:

If you go

What: OLLI will present a Vital Issues Forum with author Judith Horstman on the "Healthy Aging Brain: Making the Most of Your Mature Mind"

When: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 28

Where: Rogue River Room, Stevenson Union, Southern Oregon University, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. Parking is available in the lot on Mountain Avenue

Cost: Free; no reservations needed

More information: OLLI office, 541-552-6048 or www.sou.edu/olli.

DT: You will be speaking from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Rogue River Room in the Stevenson Union on the Southern Oregon University campus. How can we remember the time, day and place of your presentation?

Horstman: A good question, since I've always had a hard time remembering appointments at any age. I write it down — in more than one place. And thanks to technology, my iPhone can beep me a reminder. Grandchildren are very good at reminding me of important dates, such as their birthdays.

DT: The title of your talk is the "Healthy Aging Brain: Making the Most of Your Mature Mind." Can you tell us the first point you will make?

Horstman: That aging is not a disease. It's what happens if you are lucky to live long enough. And next, that the myth that older people are miserable and depressed is just not true. Studies show many of us in our 70s say we are happier than at any time since our 20s. That's certainly true for me and for many of my friends.

DT: How do we make the most of a, ahem, mature mind?

Horstman: There are many health risks that increase with aging, no doubt. There's a tremendous fear of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, and rightly so. These are terrible diseases. But newer research in my book shows Alzheimer's is not inevitable and that there are lifestyle practices that can optimize brain health at any age — even in old age.

DT: You have practiced meditation and yoga for four decades. How does this help your mind?

Horstman: Both certainly make a person more centered, peaceful and flexible — in mind and body — and there's scientifically documented evidence to show meditation physically changes the brain in ways connected with greater compassion, less reactiveness. And both lower stress, which is now connected with a higher risk of developing dementia.

DT: Can you give us an example of when you forgot something and it inspired content for the series of books you wrote in collaboration with Scientific American: "The Scientific American Day in the Life of Your Brain" (2009), "The Scientific American Brave New Brain" (2010), "The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex and the Brain" (2011) and, your latest book, "The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain" (2012)?

Horstman: I am notorious for misplacing both my keys and my reading glasses, so references to lost keys became a running tag line in "A Day in the Life of Your Brain." By the way, I've been misplacing those darn keys for half a century, so that provoked me to look a bit more into how we make — and lose — memories over time.

DT: What memory issue does a person have at certain ages?

Horstman: We all have memory issues at all ages — remember when you lost the third pair of mittens in a month in third grade? But as we reach young old age (60 or so), it tends to take longer to retrieve certain information, such as the name of a book, film or other well-known data.

That's because the insulation along connections between brain cells tends to degrade with age and slow down processing somewhat. However, memory isn't the biggest issue with an aging brain. What we want to preserve most is something called executive function, our ability to make choices or decisions. One of the sayings is that forgetting your keys isn't a big problem. It's when you forget what they're for.

DT: Some Ashland residents play trivia at Louie's and the Playwright Pub to keep their memory sharp. Are there other activities you would suggest?

Horstman: Trivia, crosswords and other memory retrieval games are great for making you better at those games, but even better is tackling something new and difficult that requires that executive function I just talked about.

Examples: Learning a new language or musical instrument, taking a class in something new and hard (physics?), teaching a class — or learning a new computer operating system. I just wrote four neuroscience books in four years, which my daughters fervently hope is going to keep my 72-year-old brain sharp.

DT: Where can we find your books in the Rogue Valley?

Horstman: Thanks for asking. Bloomsbury Books and — I hope! — all other good bookstores. All four are also available in ebook formats for the digitally minded.

More information about Judith Horstman can be found at her website (www.judithhorstman.com).

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com



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