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The good news from neuroscientists in Australia (Jiang, et al, 2020), as published in NeuroImage and reported in Psychology Today (“How Some People Stay Sharp After 95”, May 6, 2020), is that very elderly people (90-100 yr-olds) exhibiting strong connectivity between the right and left frontal parietal lobes tend not to experience cognitive decline. The bad news is that, while it may sound like a great idea for nonagenarians to keep walking and learning new things, scientists find it hard actually to demonstrate the benefits of any specific activity in preserving brain function. It’s also hard, ethically, to defend the notion that staying “sharp” represents a “model of successful ageing”.

In the latest episode of The Neuromantics, we stop to consider some of the prejudices at work behind this view of longevity and cognitive health. To whom are we comparing these elderly groups? Often there’s context missing from the discussion (the socio-economic background of any late learner is as significant as the task s/he undertakes) and an unwillingness to accept that our educational development, at any age, has a dual aspect: we make bad choices as well as good ones. A useful guide to the limited predictive value of the things we do to “stay sharp” is the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533–92). In three witty essays – “On the Length of Life”, “There is a Season for Everything”, and “On Not Pretending to be Ill” – the rationalist lawyer and devout Catholic advises us to enjoy a contemplative old age. In particular he tells us to deepen our thinking; to aim for intellectual consistency – the perfection of habit – rather than novelty. “We can always continue our studies,” he suggests, “but not our schoolwork.”

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