Brain Speed: My Quest to Live a Life Well Recalled

In middle age, one woman faces the facts. Forget rejuvenating. She just wants to remember

Catherine Deneuve once said that a woman at 30 must choose between “her bottom or her face.” Meaning, a decade later you’re either thin and gaunt or saggy-assed with plump, enviable skin. Me? I have vacillated between my front and rear cheeks ever since I turned 35, and neither would impress a Frenchwoman. Squats or exfoliation? The gym or the spa? I could never decide if I wanted to be admired coming or going.

But now, at 46, I have a new obsession: my brain. Is there such a thing as a sideways grand entrance? European scientists recently discovered that women and men experience a 3.6 percent decline in mental reasoning between the ages of 45 and 49. Previously experts didn’t expect such change until later—apparently the mid-forties are the new mid-sixties. When we turn 65, that decline slopes to 7.4 percent for me and 9.6 percent for my husband.

It’s not that I’m so concerned with lofty cognitive skills like counting cards or calculating compound interest. What I really want is to name the lead singer of the Pixies at a dinner party without biting my tongue and squinting. I want to open up a novel and realize that I read it in 2008 before I get to page 97.

“What you’re talking about is normal aging of the brain that affects speed of cognitive thinking and word retrieval,” says Kenneth Kosik, founder of the nonprofit Cottage Center for Brain Fitness and codirector of the Neuroscience Research Institute at UC Santa Barbara. He’s part of the estimated $1 billion industry geared to serving aging Americans who want to stay sharp.

To help me stave off more cognitive hiccups, Kosik jovially lays out a five-pronged regimen: exercise more, eat right (“no junk food!”), reduce stress, stimulate the brain with new challenges like learning the clarinet or Portuguese, and be sure to socialize (for more tips, see “Forget Me Not” on the facing page).

They all sound doable, but the shift actually is more about letting go of that compulsion to look forever young. Even Deneuve, at 71, knows that priorities should change. Not long ago she said this about the physicality of aging: “You have to try not to fight so hard against time, you know.” And speaking of time: Frank Black! He’s the lead singer of the Pixies. I feel sharper already.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue feature How to Live a Long Life in L.A.