Diane Keaton's freaky 1987 movie Heaven includes an argument between an on-fire conservative preacher and an atheistic Hollywood scriptwriter. The preacher gets so fed up with the writer’s insistence about the lack of physical proof for God’s existence that he finally yells, “Tell me this: have y'ever seen yer own BRAIN?” A little flustered, the writer snaps back, “No, of course not! If I had I’d be dead!” To which the preacher responds, smugly: “Well then...how d’ya know yew GOT one????!!!”
How do we know, indeed? We now have CAT scans and MRIs and so on; we know it’s there physically, even though seeing our own personal noodle in the flesh is an impossibility. Mostly, we know it’s there by its voices, its suggestions and hints and asides. (Or, um, is this just me?! Spooooky!) Without it, of course, we couldn’t know anything.
Which is why the brain book industry is especially precious to those of us in a certain age group who are more and more concerned about keeping our brainwaves lively. So far, the best cure seems to be prevention, for which no magic pill exists. Reforming habits is the only tonic.
This generational angst about "losing our minds" is constantly seeking the latest research, some of which plumps the pages of Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan’s The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program (2012). Dr. Small, who directs UCLA’s Longevity Center and co-wrote this with his wife, supplies the reader with tons of reassuring facts, brain challenges, and resources. It's clearly tightened up from their 2002 collaboration, The Memory Bible.
Journalist Jean Carper’s repeat appearances on the New York Times bestseller roster are sure to be supplemented by 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Memory Loss (2010). Carper, formerly a medical correspondent for CNN, has a personal drive to remain on top of the confusing tangle of new ideas regarding cognitive erosion, especially since a routine blood test indicated that she carries the ApoE4 susceptibility gene for Alzheimer's. Her short, punchy little chapters reinforce some of the predictable prevention routines, like eating the right stuff, moving around, and keeping your brain active, but she also rolls out a few new twists.
There are more subtle treatises that cover some of the same ground for those of us who still don’t want to mention the “A” word. Consider You Can Have an Amazing Memory: Learn Life-Changing Techniques and Tips from the Memory Maestro (2011). Ageless Memory (2007) shoehorns 40 years of Harry Lorayne’s practical experience as a leading memory specialist into its promises of grooming razor-sharp minds.
Unlike the world’s fastest typists, who will eventually become obsolete when technology handles voice commands better (so long, Barbara Blackburn, 212 wpm, or Grace Pak for the Smartphone record), Memory Champions like O’Brien (8 times! or…was it 9???) will always remain heroes in their field.
Of course, while these books are loaded with viable tips, they can’t guarantee our delivery from memory loss; both merely offer foolproof methods to help us allay those “senior moments” everyone talks about so glibly. They encourage, commiserate, and soothe us with statements, like 56-year-old O’Brien's insistence that “Age equals experience, not forgetfulness!”
And there are, of course, practical benefits to a stronger memory. Think of the things you could do with all the spare time if you were not always involved in the search for a). car keys b.) reading glasses c.) cell phone d.) Um…I forget.