Are you part of the Iranian community in the U.S.?

Question: Are you part of the Iranian diaspora community?

Khakpour:    Since the novel has come out I have become.  But previously I was never . . .  I never felt part of the Iranian Diaspora community.  I never knew where they were in Los Angeles.  I had very little contact with the youth of Tehrangeles partially because I didn’t relate to them.  My family wasn’t wealthy.  You know we weren’t a bunch of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and we were not encouraged to be doctors, lawyers, engineers either.  We were sort of a slightly artsy, nerdy family with my father as an academic.  And we grew up very modestly in a small suburb, and I had very little contact with them.  And when I would see them – those types of Iranians – I felt a slight sense of revulsion because they . . . they were the first . . .  You know I felt that in trying to become Americans, they had sort of done it to such an exaggerated degree, you know?  You suddenly had Beverly Hills High kids, you know, were platinum blonds; tons of designer clothes; you know BMWs, Mercedes.  It was like everything about American culture that I didn’t like done to absolute excess.  And so I really never met them.  And when I went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, there were a few half Iranian kids and that was about it.  And they were sort of like me.  They hadn’t really grown up in an Iranian-American immigrant community.  So I never had the chance to be around them much.  And then when the novel came out, it did get the support of an Iranian-American community, and I was able to see that there were other Iranians like myself who didn’t fit into that Tehrangeles culture that I grew up very phobic of.  And that was wonderful, and now I’m in touch with lots of Iranian and Iranian-American artists, writers, musicians, and they come to some of my readings.  And it’s mostly wonderful.  I get e-mails from a lot of people in Iran, actually, who can’t get the book, but who have heard about it.  Iranians in Iran are on the Internet all the time.  They’re obsessed with blogs and all that.  So they’ve discovered me a little bit, and I get sort of interesting e-mails from them, which is fine.  A lot of them trying to figure out what my name means, am I Muslim or not.  I get this all the time.  Even in readings, you know, there will always be some old Iranian guy who will come up to me and ask me my religion, which I find very startling.  But the Iranians in Iran are hilarious.  I had one guy, an old . . .  He seemed like an older carpet seller, and he wanted to . . .  He gave me a long speech in his e-mail about what an honor it was for an Iranian to be getting press.  And, “Congratulations on your victory,” it said.  And then he said would you be interested in buying these incredible rugs he does of Zoroastrian images . . . imagery in very broken English.  So he was trying to do business, I guess.  And it was lovely.  But I correspond a lot with some of the English speaking bloggers in Iran who are incredibly progressive, and incredibly bright and interesting, and are very curious about what’s going on here.  And I get . . .  Some e-mails . . .  I’m on Good Reads, and I run a literature of the Iran and the Diaspora group there.  And I constantly get e-mails from the Iranians there who . . .  They’re always asking, “Well what are you guys reading?  What are the good novels by Middle Easterners in the U.S.?  Because all you people ever do is recommend “The Kite Runner” to us, and we hate “The Kite Runner””.  I can’t tell you how many e-mails I’ve got from Iranians who just seem so upset about “The Kite Runner” being a hit here.  They think the writing is pedestrian, which I think is very funny.

Since her novel came out, Khakpour has been getting lots of fan mail from Iranian bloggers.

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Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.

Photo by Nicholas Roberts /Getty Images
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  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

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  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


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