The secret of youth: flares and orange carpet

The Young Ones

Senior housemates

And lo, Liz arose from her wheelchair and walked, and it was all down to the swirly-patterned wallpaper.

The BBC’s The Young Ones concluded last night with the housemates undergoing a series of tests which purported to show pretending you are living in 1975 can make you fitter, better at remembering things and generally more capable. The programme makers put six celebrity elders in a sort of Senior Big Brother house full of clashing geometric patterns, made them wear kaftans and flares, then got a couple of academic types to watch from the garage to see if they got any younger.

Liz Smith, the 88 year-old actor, who arrived in a wheelchair following three strokes, was clipping down the sea front at Worthing on foot by the end and delivering lectures to the rest of us about how best to stay young. Sylvia Sims, 76, who arrived in a state of exhaustion claiming she’d barely been able to walk for two years, was bustling around managing children and dinner parties. She left to be a roving ambassador for AgeUK.

Despite looking amazingly well-preserved, Lionel Blair couldn’t touch his toes when he arrived but made such an improvement that he was finally able to reveal his most closely guarded secret: he was 78. Kenneth Kendall, the most sceptical and, in many ways, dullest housemate contributed the most moving moment when he decided that he was not after all too old to get a dog.

The BBC promises that next Wednesday, one of the academics, Michael Mosley, will present a programme explaining the ‘science’ behind the wheeze. Can this really be necessary? For all the use of computer screens that looked like something out of The Bourne Identity (but were, in fact, lists) it was pretty obvious what was going on here.

Ellen Langer, the other academic and originator of the experiment, gave it away when the redoubtable Sylvia Sims said: ‘What I haven’t quite got my head round is the correlation between taking us back to 1975 and physical improvement.’ It’s a placebo, Ellen said.

Half a dozen relatively isolated people, much less busy than they had been in the past, were expected to be both entertaining and be self-reliant. (The most interesting part came in the middle of the three programmes, when carers were introduced and most of housemates regressed.) They made friends and had a good time playing house in the hideous decor, and they were working, on television, which is one of the highest status jobs known to the modern world. No wonder they felt better.

Perhaps the reminders of their younger selves had some small impact but, mainly, they suddenly had lots of reasons to make an effort. Derek Jameson, gregarious and funny, admitted that his main social activity outside the Senior BB house was getting out his bus pass and going to the library. He struck up an intense and very endearing friendship with Dickie Bird – ‘ a lovely, wonderful man who has lightened up my life.’

What was interesting was not the rather implausible premise of a scientific experiment, but how watchable these six old people were – how interesting and complex and articulate and appealing. They quickly ceased to be curiosities, and became the stuff of any old drama, individual human beings grappling with particular problems, with whom you wanted to engage and sympathise.

Perhaps as the population ages we will finally start to see more old people on television. (As Sylvia Sims said: ‘We’re here, and you’d better get used to it.’) Despite executives’ famous fear of sagging bodies and lined faces on screen, The Young Ones suggested there was absolutely no reason why not.

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Falling apart, stylishly

Crazy Age‘I like being old at least as much as I liked being middle aged and a good deal more than I liked being young,’ Jane Miller writes on the first page of Crazy Age. It is an encouraging start, promising a thoughtful, individual and particular take on ageing.

A former English teacher and professor at the Institute of Education at London University, Miller has written a wry, graceful book that makes room for both the tribulations of ageing and its less often explored pleasures. Miller’s seventysomething beady eye observes life from the perspective of one who has seen a lot and is occasionally dismayed, but more often charmed and amused.

Her book is subtitled Thoughts on Being Old but might equally have been called The Consolations of Literature, because her thinking has been developed and honed by a lifetime’s reading. The wisdom and emotional acuity she has drawn from novels and poetry is what gives her perceptions such easy authority and humanity.

Jane Miller

Jane Miller

Poems by Rochester and Robert Burns inspired the ‘crazy’ of her title – which refers, she explains, not so much to madness as to ‘what is outlandish, erratic, unpredictable, unreliable about old age…it means falling to bits, being broken, impaired, mismatched, jagged, out of kilter.’ Old people, in her view, are a bit like crazy paving. Trailing bits of this and that, losing things – even themselves on occasion – they are still ‘impudently here in what is after all our time and space too.’

Miller doesn’t minimise the drawbacks of ageing, noting that the highest number of suicides occur in men over the age of 75, and writing, quite matter-of-factly, about her best friend’s dementia. She reminds us of the more or less constant presence of hospitals in older people’s lives, along with the inevitable forgetting of names. (I was delighted to find that ‘agapanthus’ gives her particular trouble, because it has always given me trouble – along, for some reason, with ‘euphemism’.) She also, though, takes a wicked delight in the ridiculous paraphernalia, what she calls the theatrical props, of old age: ‘the pills and sticks, the shrieking hearing aids and dental weaponry, the tricks for countering the loss of names and threads and glasses and for circumventing insomnia, the visits to The Back Shop.’

Writing about getting rid of a box of family letters, or about reading Anna Karenina in Russian (which she does every morning, a dictionary beside her,) she offers insights that you feel you couldn’t quite have got without her. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, she notes almost in passing, is that rare thing, a work that deals with the unrequited love of the old for the young, especially of parents for their children. She observes (I had never quite thought this before, although I’d felt it) that accepting that someone really has died can feel like letting them down.

There is a lovely passage in which she returns to the school where she used to teach to find it ‘festooned in captions’ offering moral guidance and lists of contemporary virtues: achievement, effort, excellence, leadership.  ‘Not much talk,’ she notes drily, ‘of subtlety, humour, negative capability, sympathy. Nowadays you can just ‘achieve’, you’re expected to, without specifying what exactly you’re achieving.’

The qualities whose absence she notes are some of her own writing’s best characteristics. Jane Miller is sceptical, rational, ironic. But she is also subtle, sympathetic, humorous, open to possibilities beyond the one that most immediately presents itself. Her writing is elegant and nuanced. She never thumps a tub; she’s not interested in prescriptions – knowing, perhaps, that age is too complicated and personal to be solved or remedied. It can, however, be salved, and often positively enjoyed. There are some things, she suggests, that change for the better as you age – readings of novels that never would have occurred to your younger self – and some things you simply need to have lived a bit to understand.

Crazy Age is published by Virago, £14.99

The exciting and previously unknown ageing brain

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up BrainThe Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch, Viking, US $26.95

Some of us  (I am speaking personally here) have been afflicted for our entire lives with the habit of running eagerly upstairs to get something, arriving in the bedroom and completely forgetting why we’re there. Some of us (me again) arrive at parties with our anticipation at a delightful evening tempered by alarm that we’ll end up having to introduce someone we know really well but whose name we cannot, for some reason, dredge up out of the slimy morass of our brains.

Even those who haven’t carried this burden throughout their lives are likely to start suffering from it in middle age. Those for whom parties have always been something of a trial are likely to find the struggle to retrieve information even harder. Partly because of this noticeable change, the assumption until recently has been that the middle aged brain is in decline. Your brain cells start dying off after the age of 19, your teenage children will tell you, while your friends speak ruefully of ‘senior moments’. Common sense suggests that brains age in parallel with bodies, sagging and greying and generally becoming less useful.

Yet in the last 10 years, developments in neuroscience have shed a whole new light on what happens to the brain as it ages, and previously commonsensical notions are looking like less than the complete picture. In this new book, Barbara Strauch, the health and medical science editor at the New York Times, canters through much of the recent academic research to produce a rather more complex picture of the resilience and plasticity of the ageing brain.

Broadly, Strauch’s conclusion is that aspects of memory do indeed decline with age, not least the ability to remember names. Yet it turns out that the Greeks were on to something when they decreed that citizens could become jury members only when they reached the age of 50. MRI scanning, genetic analysis and sophisticated long-term studies are beginning to show that the ability to make accurate judgements, to build patterns of connection and interweave layers of knowledge actually grow with age. We could yet establish a biological basis for wisdom.

brain graphicBrain science remains in its infancy, and Strauch is unable to paint a complete picture, but she does offer lots of tantalising glimpses. At UCLA, MRI scanning has shown that the fatty white coating of neurons called myelin continues to grow into late middle age; George Bartzokis, a neuroscientist involved in this work, believes this is ‘the brain biology behind becoming a wise middle-aged adult.’ The Seattle Longitudinal Study, which has tracked the mental powers of more than 6,000 people since 1956, shows better functioning in middle age than at any other time on four out of six cognitive tests.

The trend of research across different disciplines seems to point to a midlife loss of processing speed – the ability to swerve to avoid a squirrel in the road – as well as of the ability to mug up and retrieve dates in history. But it also suggests a growing mastery of vocabulary, spatial orientation and inductive reasoning. Emotions remain strong, and yet the ability to regulate them increases. Most impressive, and most convincingly researched, is the ability to recognize patterns and see connections, which persists strongly and offers hope for continued creativity, intuitiveness and social and emotional responsiveness.

Strauch’s book is in two parts, the first an overview of the current state of knowledge, and the second an attempt at a how-to-keep-your-brain-fit guide. Neuroscience has shown the brain to be nothing if not mutable. Experiments on rats and monkeys have found that those that are allowed to live in enriched and stimulating environments end up with bigger brains, making more connections. On all tests they are smarter than those living lonely, mundane lives.

Taking her cue from this, Strauch looks at how you might keep your brain working. Here she’s on less comfortable ground, because the science is so nascent and tentative that any prescription based on it looks rash. Certain general principles seem to be valid: education is good, social relationships are vital, exercise is excellent, nutrition is important. Beyond this, there are few certainties. What kind of education? The brain training industry has gone from being worth $2million in 2002 to $80 million in 2007, yet, as she points out, there is no proof that brain training games work outside the laboratory.

We can be pretty sure obesity is bad for the brain and oxidative stress and inflammation are unhelpful, yet there’s no proof that eating foods high in antioxidants or anti-inflammatory agents will make a difference. You can buy what are advertised as resveratrol pills on the internet. Resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine, has been shown to extend the life of yeast, and, at very high doses, rodents. These pills are part of a vast market in anti ageing preparations and potions. They are at best, and putting it as politely as possible, a hunch.

Strauch is too good a journalist to get drawn into too much cheerleading ‘you can save your brain’ business. But the book is sold in part as a guide to discovering that, to quote the blurb, ‘your smartest years are still ahead.’ In fact, what The Secret Life of The Grown-Up Brain leaves you with is a conviction that it will be a long time before we have definitive answers to most of our questions about the brain, because each individual brain’s development is such a complex mixture of genetics and environment. As an overview of where we are now, though, it is excellent. And, in a cautious, hopeful frame of mind, as befits the state of the science, quietly but definitely encouraging.Barbara Strauch