There’s No Such Thing as Multi-Tasking

man-with-index-fingers-at-the-temples_1187-2926I’ve been reading John Medina’s book Brain Rules for Aging Well. Medina, a molecular biologist, presents his guiding principles for healthy aging. He writes with the scientific rigour you would expect from a scientist. At the same time, Brain Rules for Aging Well is an enjoyable, reader-friendly book. Having worked my way through it, I feel more informed about what truly contributes to healthy aging.  Here are a couple of my new insights.

Medina has set me straight about multi-tasking. He says: “Scientists have known for years that true multitasking is a myth. It’s impossible for any brain to monitor two attention-rich targets simultaneously. The only way your brain can track multiple targets is to use a task-switching strategy (p.116.)”

I’d always known that the aging brain, unlike younger brains, is incapable of doing two things at once. Witness the older person trying to carry on a conversation while writing a note to a friend. Younger people can do both at once. I had always attributed this to the aging brains’ inability to multi-task. Medina sets the record straight.

“Older folks concentrate on tasks just as well as younger ones, maybe even better. What’s at stake here is the increasing inability to ignore distractions. This is what makes it hard for the older person to manage two tasks at once (p. 225.)”  He continues: “Our ability to ignore distractions declines from a high of 82 per cent when younger to a low of 56 per cent when older.” Scientists call this ‘divided attention,’ not ‘multi-tasking.’ It’s the increasing inability to ignore distractions (p. 115.)   It simply gets harder for us to switch between tasks with age (p.115.)  After all, Medina points out, we’re living in a body that was never built to handle life past thirty.

Then there’s the matter of cortisol, the steroid hormone that’s released when we’re stressed. Too much cortisol damages the brain.

“When too much cortisol hangs around too long, it can actually whittle away at hippocampal tissue, causing the organ to atrophy (p. 71.)”  You will remember that the hippocampus is responsible for our memory. What older person isn’t worried about memory loss?

The bad news gets worse. As we age, we don’t calm down as quickly as we once did. That means an even greater release of cortisol.

Medina explains that this steroid hormone was meant to help the body respond to stress. That was all very well for animals or for our primitive ancestors.  Their stressors were short lived. Either you managed to run faster than the tiger, or you were eaten and that was the end of it.  The problem is, for us humans, stressors are usually complex, about relationships or money: not issues that are over quickly. We end up with too much cortisol in our systems and this damages parts of the brain, especially the hippocampus.

At this point I shiver with fear. Old age itself is stressful, even if your life runs smoothly. Considering my own life path and the rough road I’ve been travelling, I figure I’m doomed to memory loss. I shudder to think how much cortisol my own body’s fight-or-flight response has been dumping on my hippocampus. After all, in the past three years I’ve left a marriage after 55 years, moved four times, got really sick in Arizona and now am concentrating on recovering in a retirement home until I’m well enough to get my own apartment again.

But wait! There’s hope, says Medina. The hippocampus is capable of making new neural tissue if you practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about cultivating the habit of paying close attention to any task we’re carrying out and staying very present to our surroundings. If I learn to practice this, I’ll not only stay calm, I’ll give my hippocampus a chance to hold more memory.

In my next post, I’ll let you know how I’m making out with my new practice of mindfulness.

Worst Time In My Life

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If you regularly read my blogs, you know I haven’t posted for a long time.  That’s because the first half of 2018 has probably been the hardest and worst time in my life. Returning from Arizona, where I intended to spend a glorious winter, I could barely breathe. I was limp, depressed and helplessly weak. In retrospect, it’s hard to know how much of my weakened state was purely physical (Is there such a thing?) – and how much was emotional.

My son and daughter-in-law took me in and looked after me until I moved to – yikes! – a retirement home. I don’t know how long I’ll stay here. I’ll probably move out to an apartment to live on my own before too long. Meanwhile Sammy and I have a charming suite right on Lake Ontario, in the very centre of Kingston’s busy downtown.

Sammy really enjoys life among these old people with their ever-present walkers. We even have a fenced-in grassy area just outside our bedroom window.  Sammy hops through the window to relieve himself or to bark at passersby.  No longer do I need to take him outside last thing at night and first thing in the morning. (Every cloud has a silver lining?)

Meanwhile as I recover my health, I continue to look for reliable information on healthy aging. My latest discovery is a remarkable book by New York Times bestselling author John Medina. It’s called Brain Rules For Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp.  Dr. Medina is a scientist, a molecular biologist. His findings are well researched and his book is very readable.

Not too long from now, in my next posting, , I’ll tell you more about what Medina can teach us.

Caution Snowbirds

sand stormIf you’ve been reading these blog posts, you know how my recent plans to become a snowbird and escape Kingston’s blustery winters totally backfired. Back in November, I was looking forward to five months of sun and blue skies in southern Arizona where I’d rented the perfect house for Sammy the poodle, visiting friends and myself. My plans remained just that: plans. They all fell through and I was left feeling very lonely in my chosen paradise. That was bad enough, but then I got sick and ended up in hospital. Things had gone from bad to worse. Now  I was alone and helpless in a strange country. I was terrified.

I’d come to Arizona because of my lung condition. The air is said to be ideal for people whose breathing is compromised. In the early days in Arizona, even before I got sick, I often sensed  there was something in the air my lungs didn’t like. This was only a suspicion. Then I became very, very sick.

I needed my friend Barb to come and get me. She did and we started the drive back to Canada. By the time we got to the north of Arizona, I could barely breathe. That meant another trip to another emergency department. Here I was told that there wasn’t an available hospital bed in the whole state. What was happening? Arizona, of course, is the place people with lung problems come. How come all the beds were full?

I could only wonder.

Then, the other day, (in April) a friend sent me an air quality study from the very area I’d chosen for my snowbird experience.  The Environmental Protection Agency report of April 2018 reveals that Pima County, Green Valley and Sahuarita, the exact location I’d chosen, reported some serious air quality problems.

Two copper mines adjoin the suburbs of Green Valley and Sahuarita. When I first arrived in the area, I thought the yellow hills in the distance were mountains. They turned out to be piles of tailings, the ground-up rock that’s left after valuable minerals have been extracted.

Recently when high winds sent “huge dust clouds swirling” through the area where I had lived,  the Environmental Protection Agency became concerned. Their officials began investigating “how much, if at all, the mine tailings contributed to the dust problem in violation of county air-quality laws.”

Their report goes on to say:

“The particles can cause or aggravate lung or other respiratory problems such as asthma. “

There are other possible causes contributing to the harmful effect of air quality.

“Significant amounts of dust were also noted in the general Green Valley area, including the surrounding desert area and dirt roads throughout the valley.”

The moral of the story? Before you set out on your vacation, check the air quality.

There Are “Plans” And Then There’s What Actually Happens

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There Are “Plans,” and Then There’s What Actually Happens

I heard the above saying last September during my birthday trip to the Grand Canyon. It was after that trip that I boldly made plans to avoid Canada’s winter by renting a house in sunny Arizona.

As I write this, I’ve been back in Kingston long enough to reflect on my disastrous first attempt at being a snowbird. What went wrong? I’d planned it all so carefully. Five days of driving 700 miles a day would get me to the warm, dry air of Green Valley, Arizona. My friend Barb would share the driving so that Sammy the Poodle could travel by car, not airplane. We’d take a generous break in the middle of the day for a leisurely meal and a trip to the local off-leash dog park.

Barb would stay for a brief holiday before flying back to Ontario. After that, Shirley, a fellow writer, would spend November with me while she wrote her book. My son and his family would arrive for Christmas. And so on it went, until April when it was time to get back in the car and return to Canada’s warm weather.  

The rental house was perfect. It was a white stucco bungalow with generous guest space and a walled-in yard for Sammy. Afternoons I sat at my computer in the Arizona Room watching the late afternoon sky gradually turn mauve and pink. To my right was the sunset; to my left, the Santa Rita Mountains. Arizona wins the prize for great dog parks and, unlike northern parks, they have running water.  

It wasn’t long before my well-laid plans began to fall apart. First, my book-writing colleague found herself involved in a family situation that demanded her physical presence with them.

Next, the Ontario Community College strike went on and on. This meant that staff and students would not be getting a full Christmas break. Since my son teaches at St. Lawrence College, he and his family would be in Kingston for the holiday and I’d be alone.

By now it was January. Other possible guests were delaying their visits. Worse, I was feeling more and more unhealthy. I felt sick … and depressed. I was alone and scared. There were no old friends and no family in Arizona. Clearly, this was not a good place for me.  

By the time I gave up on my dream of spending the winter in the Arizona desert, I had become very sick. In fact, I could barely look after myself. It was warm and it was beautiful, but it certainly wasn’t doing me a lot of good. I needed to return to family and friends and to Canada’s health care system. And so, by the end of January, I was back in Ontario, toughing out the blizzards and the cold as I tried to recover my health.

 

A Very Quiet Winter

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 9.59.17 AMNow that I’m back in Ontario’s snowy, cold winter, I don’t get out much. In fact, days go by when I stay inside. Going into freezing temperatures can set off my lung disease and my allergy to cold. That sounds like a recipe for depression, but strangely, I’m feeling very much at peace. I’m actually relaxed and happy. It’s something like being on a retreat.

When I check in with the centre of my body, the physically felt “switchboard,” the place that’s in touch with how I’m experiencing my life, I feel at peace. When things don’t feel happy in my torso, I know something is wrong for me.

This “barometer” guides me in how my life should go forward. We all have this knowing in our bodies. Focusing calls it the felt sense.

My body’s felt response is much smarter than my mind when it comes to realizing what’s right and wrong for me.  If only I remember to keep checking in with it, I have a reliable guide by which to lead my life.

Recently, with the usual busyness removed from my life, I’ve had lots of time to ponder the wonders of the felt sense. There was a time, though, a couple of years ago, when I lost faith in the reliability of the felt sense. Here’s what happened.

I’d carried out my plan to move from Toronto where I’d lived all my adult life to Kington where my son, daughter-in-law and little granddaughter live. The change wasn’t working out the way I’d planned. I wasn’t happy. Worse, I’d brought my husband here and I knew how hard moving was for him. Maybe the felt sense was not reliable. Maybe this move was all a mistake. The implications were very disturbing.

It was my Focusing partner who got me thinking about the infallibility of the felt sense.

“Have you ever thought that maybe your felt sense is not just about you?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe it works on behalf of Harvey too. I’m just so glad you got Harvey out of Toronto. He’d have been left with his patients and his work. He worked all the time. And now that he’s in Kingston he’s really enjoying himself. He’s getting healthy, he’s making friends, he’s enjoying pickle ball, and on and on.”

This was a new way of looking at the big move.

“You think my felt sense includes those close to me?”

“And a whole lot more.”

I’d forgotten what Gendlin said in his original paperback about the felt sense. I pulled out my yellowed copy of the original 1978 Bantam paperback. It said:

Your physically felt body is a part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people – in fact the whole universe.

This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is your body as it is felt from the inside (p.77.)

Wow! If that’s true, you and I are connected to every plant, animal, human and, indeed, the whole universe.

What do you think? I’d like to hear your thoughts.