Tom Perrotta on “The Abstinence Teacher”

Perrotta:    We’re at a moment of real flux in this because when I wrote the book “The Abstinence Teacher,” I wrote it as a kind of reaction to the 2004 election and to that sense I had at that point that there’s just this yawning cultural divide between the blue states and the red states and that we’re living in two entirely separate realities and what I wanted to do is try and get those two realities into one town, sort of create a kind of microcosm of the culture where… By the time the book came out in 2007, I don’t think I was alone in feeling like the culture war had sort of died down.  There’d been that watershed election in 2006 where the Democrats had kind of taken over the house.  You know, Bush had gotten so mired in the debacle of Iraq that his social agenda kind of fell apart.  There’d also been a series of scandals involving, you know, the Reverend Ted Haggard, Mark Foley, all these sort of guardians of morality on the right, it once again exposed themselves as, you know, hypocrites to some degree or other.  But by the time…  And then a year went by and McCain is running.  He’s running as the one Republican who didn’t seem to have a very strong cultural and social conservative agenda, but then he picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate and you could just see that that sort of latent culture war just flared back up.  It was just right in front of us.  There are all these sort of angry social conservatives who just have been deeply frustrated because they’d been marginalized in the Republican Primaries.  But in that period between, you know, around 2007 there was this real sense that the monolithic voice of the Evangelical Right had started to break down.  You know, it was as if like these Liberal Christians who’d been hiding for years just suddenly came out and said, hey, wait a minute, you know, Jesus wasn’t just talking about sexual morality.  Jesus was talking about poverty.  Jesus was talking about being stewards of the earth, you know and there was a…  And I think that’s still going on.  I think that the Evangelical Right doesn’t have the clout that it used to have but it would be wrong to think that it just went away.  It’s there but it’s not going to dominate the Republican Party the way it did in the sort of Karl Rove, George Bush manner and the one thing that happened as a result of writing this book was I heard… I got e-mails from a lot of Christians, but in a way it’s not surprising.  They’re Liberal Christians who I think were sympathetic to the way that I wrote about the character Tim who is a guy who, is in a sense have been saved by religion but he’s struggling to really figure out how he can leave his life in a Christian way.  So it’s not, you know, it’s hard and it’s a struggle and certain things make sense to him and certain things don’t.  I means, he’s a kind of searching Christian figure and I didn’t get a whole lot of flak from the far right because I just don’t think they read novels.  I don’t think they read novels like this, for sure, but I did get a lot of really interesting responses from Liberal Christians who I think felt like a lot of the book rang true to people that they’d known and struggles that they’d had with them.  You know, trying to live a Christian life but also, you know, have a kind of more flexible or tolerant set of moral standards, particularly around sexual issues.

Tom Perrotta taks about his latest book and religious and moral values 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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