Buy Photo

Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

"If you live in the river, you should make friends with the crocodile." -- Indian proverb

As more of my aunts and uncles are lost to Alzheimer's, and as I watch my mother struggle with and try to ignore the elephant in her living room known as dementia, I find myself wondering about the health of my own brain.

When I specifically go to the grocery store on Wednesday to take advantage of my recently acquired senior discount and then forget to ask for my senior discount at checkout time, is it an ironic story or a warning sign? Am I doomed to follow the path of the generation just before me?

There are no guarantees, of course, of mental functionality or failure, but there are apparently steps one can take to exercise the brain. Some experts recommend puzzles, such as crosswords, anagrams, sudokus, and the like. Some recommend learning new things, such as taking up a musical instrument, or knitting, or snorkeling. The common denominator in these techniques is the ability to adapt, to allow the brain to forge new pathways of knowledge or understanding or figuring. Asking the brain to work in new ways is one of the keys to maintaining its power.

Take the cockroach. Cockroaches have already adapted to the ingredients in the bait that used to lure them to certain death. With their superior capacity to evolve, they have switched their internal chemistry around to alter their experience of sweetness, so that glucose-based bait instead tastes bitter to them. They now avoid the specific taste, and turn their little noses up at the poison set for them, giving them the reputation of possibly the one species that will survive a nuclear holocaust. I don't know if cockroaches actually have noses, and I don't really want to know, which is the perfect example of a brain -- mine -- that must be prodded to learn.

Surely, then, it is in my best interest to adapt and change, to alter my own brain chemistry, to force myself to be interested in things that don't normally interest me, to inquire into topics and ideas that have heretofore been outside the realm of my experience. I try to drum up some curiosity about professional baseball. I consciously perform tasks with my right hand rather than my preferred left. I walk the dogs in the morning instead of the evening. I make myself pick snails out of the garden without wearing gloves. But this all has the effect of making me realize that I am a creature of routine, that I take comfort in a schedule, that living haphazardly is not my nature. I like to get up at the same time, drink the same kind of tea, make the same sandwich for my lunch, water the plants on the same days, watch "Jeopardy" on weeknights. I am doomed to dementia.

Our newly (again) empty nest may also be contributing to my mental ossification. Until recently, we had three young women living in our house, adult daughters temporarily returned home, filling the rooms and our hearts with the unexpected. Living in a family of five vibrant lives requires far more adaptation than does the quiet, serene home containing just the two of us. Sacrificing order to chaos is healthy for the doddering brain, as well as expansive for the spirit. Now that they have all moved out again, much as I may love the sweet slow rhythm of our empty nest, I have to admit that the fast-paced, never-boring presence of those girls kept me on my toes. My exposure to new ideas is diminished without them.

So is it all downhill if I am unable to imitate the cockroach, if I give in to routine and fail to adapt? Also, is adapting always the best course, or are there times that require us to stick to the old ways? Finally, is my future mental health in danger unless I comb my hair a different way, or pretzel myself into some new yoga poses, or start rapping? Probably, although I sometimes suspect that the experts tell us to change things up to fool us into feeling that we are being proactive, that we are doing something to stave off the fate that is going to overtake us anyway, regardless of what we do. Maybe the crosswords just serve to alleviate our worrying about the inevitable, while doing nothing to change the course of decline.

Or maybe, when all is said, adapting or perishing can seem like equally crummy choices to us old folks. Maybe I don't want to make friends with the crocodile. Then again, maybe, just maybe, I'll surprise myself.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her