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Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife


Why can't you remember where you put your keys?

Or the title of the movie you saw last week?

Anyone older than forty knows that forgetfulness can be unnerving, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying. With compassion and humor, acclaimed journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin explores the factors that determine how well or poorly one's brain will age.

She takes readers along on her lively journey—consulting with ...

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Carved in Sand: When Memory Fades in Mid-Life

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Why can't you remember where you put your keys?

Or the title of the movie you saw last week?

Anyone older than forty knows that forgetfulness can be unnerving, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying. With compassion and humor, acclaimed journalist Cathryn Jakobson Ramin explores the factors that determine how well or poorly one's brain will age.

She takes readers along on her lively journey—consulting with experts in the fields of sleep, stress, traumatic brain injury, hormones, genetics, and dementia, as well as specialists in nutrition, cognitive psychology, and the burgeoning field of drug-based cognitive enhancement. Along the way, she turns up fresh scientific findings, explores the dark regions of the human brain, and hears the intimate confessions of high-functioning midlife adults who—like so many of us—are desperate to understand exactly what's going on upstairs.

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Editorial Reviews

Scientific American Mind
“Jakobson Ramin’s insightful and well-researched journey through memoryland offers some valuable lessons.”
More Magazine
Columbus Dispatch
“[Carved in Sand] combines Ramin’s extensive search for a memory cure with solid science about how the brain works.”
Jane Brody
“An enlightening and rather on fading memory in midlife.”
Publishers Weekly

Memory loss and other cognitive problems are increasingly the bugaboo of aging baby boomers, as well as many of their elders. In her first book, veteran journalist Ramin turns herself into a guinea pig as she seeks ways to restore her own failing memory and growing inability to concentrate. Looking at a wide variety of genetic, biochemical and environmental factors that slow the connections among the brain's 100 billion neurons, especially in the hippocampus, Ramin undertakes 10 interventions, methods of achieving her cognitive enhancement. She logs the ups and downs of medications such as Adderall and Provigil; she looks at dietary supplements and biofeedback. She ends with discussions with experts, such as Nobelist Eric Kandel, about what keeps some people mentally young into old age; the key seems to be having the "mental reserves" gained from challenging one's mind with new kinds of learning—such as learning a new language or studying art—that use different parts of the brain; the right diet and exercise also help. Overall, the variety of perspectives and the wealth of scientific information Ramin provides, as well as her warm personal style, will reward readers and may well help them stay mentally sharp. (Apr. 1)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060598709
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/1/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, a journalist for the past twenty-five years, has been published in the New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; New York magazine; and the Los Angeles Times, among many other publications. She lives in Northern California.

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Read an Excerpt

Carved in Sand When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife
By Cathryn Jakobson Ramin HarperCollins Copyright © 2007 Cathryn Jakobson Ramin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-06-059869-3

Chapter One Your Unreliable Brain

Midlife Forgetfulness Is Embarrassing and Frustrating, but What Does It Mean for the Future?

On the drive from the suburbs to the city, we'd experienced a disturbing number of memory lapses. Actually, the first bout with forgetfulness had occurred earlier that afternoon, when our friend Sam, who was three hours away in Reno judging a barbecue contest, forgot that we had dinner plans. After a not-so-gentle phone reminder from his wife, he made the drive home in record time, still carrying a whiff of slow-smoked baby back ribs on his person. That mistake was in the past, but other canyons loomed before us. Where was our restaurant, again? (I had printed out the address, as I'd promised-and left it on the kitchen counter.) Had my husband made the reservation for seven, or seven-fifteen? Which way did Post Street go? Was the nearest parking lot on the corner, or midway up the block? I made the error of mentioning that the little bistro we'd chosen had a great young chef, fresh out of the kitchen of some hotshot who had a restaurant in the Napa Valley, and another in Los Angeles. Or maybe it was Las Vegas. I'd read about it somewhere.

That's what set my husband off.

"Oh, I know exactly who you mean," he said, ready to educate us. Then, he drew a blank. I watched him become increasingly preoccupied as he explored every shadowy cognitive pathway, searching for the name he was after.

I whispered that he ought to give it a rest-he'd think of it later.

"But it's driving me crazy," he said.

An hour into this hard-earned evening out with friends, more information was missing than present. Among our peers, this state of affairs was so common I'd started to call it "the content-less conversation." When the words "Ken Frank, La Toque, Fenix-and that is in L.A." finally tumbled from his lips, we cheered. We could move on to other things, like whether any of us had ever tasted the nice bottle of wine we were ordering, and if we had, whether we'd liked it. Maybe we'd only heard about it. Or read about it. Or seen it on the supermarket shelf. No one could say for sure.

"I guess this is normal," Julia sighed, "but I swear, no one we know can remember a thing."

"It may be normal," Sam said darkly, "but it isn't acceptable. Maybe forty years ago, when life was slower and you could depend on a pension and a gold watch for thirty years of dedicated service, it would have been okay."

He was right: What was making us nuts hadn't flustered our parents in their forties and fifties. But their lives were different, and so were their expectations. They weren't changing careers or inventing new ones. At the age of fifty-two, they definitely weren't trying to remember to show up for back-to-school night for three kids at two different schools.

Normal-But Not Acceptable

Nearly every time the subject of forgetfulness arose, people asked me if what they were experiencing was "normal." If they defined that word as the dictionary does-"conforming with, adhering to, or constituting a norm, standard, pattern, level or type," the answer was yes-perfectly.

Everybody asked, but in truth, few people were content with the implications of "normal." What they really wanted to know was whether they were just a little (or a lot) better off than their peers. This was important: If they slipped below the mean, chances were good that they would not be able to keep up.

What was normal had changed considerably over the centuries: Two hundred years ago, if we aged "normally"-that is, according to our biological destiny-forgetfulness wouldn't be an issue at forty-five or fifty: Most of us would be in our graves. Medicine constantly redefines what is normal in terms of physiological aging. We get new knees and new hips. We take drugs to control our blood pressure. We don't give up reading when our fading vision demands that we hold the newspaper at arm's length. Instead, we build ourselves an arsenal of reading glasses and scatter them all over the house and office, in case we forget where they are. When the New York Times Magazine began to run a Sunday cartoon series with wording in a font so small that I couldn't manage it even while wearing my reading glasses, I suffered no damage to my self-esteem. And yet, when it comes to what scientists call "age-associated cognitive impairment," we take it personally and refuse to do anything about it, mostly because we're not sure what we can do.

This sheeplike complacency occurs because the brain is our most intimidating organ. Your brain, with you from the start, has demanded remarkably little attention. Like me, you've probably spent more time worrying about the condition of your abdominal muscles. We assume that what is going on in there is as mysterious as the universe, involving such concepts as consciousness, being and soul, surely best left to the philosophers and the clerics. Here's the news: From a purely biochemical perspective, your brain-a three-pound bolus of fat, with the texture of lightly scrambled eggs-is essentially the same organ a rat is carrying around on its shoulders. As a result of your genetic inheritance, certain aspects of how your brain will age are already inscribed in the Book of You, but it's written in pencil, and you have an eraser. Recent studies of pairs of elderly identical twins, only one of whom developed Alzheimer's disease, show that genetics, although influential, aren't everything. As you will see, you can indeed influence the way your brain ages, through diet, physical and mental exercise, and assuming you've done all you can in those departments, by taking advantage of the increasing availability of pharmaceuticals intended to enhance cognition.

Say it to yourself: "Normal, but not acceptable." And, from what the senior scientists tell me, definitely mutable, subject to the quality of your resolve.


Excerpted from Carved in Sand by Cathryn Jakobson Ramin Copyright © 2007 by Cathryn Jakobson Ramin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Most Precious Possession     xi
Your Unreliable Brain: Midlife Forgetfulness Is Embarrassing and Frustrating, but What Does It Mean for the Future?     1
Glitches, Gaps and Gaffes: The Memory-Hungry Crowd Speaks Candidly About Screwing Up     11
Frontal-Lobe Overload: "Too Much Information" Is Just One of the Reasons You Feel Like You're Drowning     23
Blocking, Blanking and Begging for Mercy: Why Words and Thoughts Flee Without Warning     36
Into the Doughnut Hole: What a Brain Scan Can (and Cannot) Tell You About What's Going on Upstairs     45
Swallow This: The Feeding of a Midlife Brain: Essential Fatty Acids, Vitamins, Supplements and Plenty of Glucose     58
Mental Aerobics: From Tedious to Addictive: Options for Exercising Your Neurons     72
Bathing in Battery Acid: Elevated Cortisol Associated with Chronic Stress Is No Friend to Your Hippocampus     85
Yearning for Estrogen: Rejecting Hormone Therapy Could Leave Your Neurons in the Lurch     98
The Vulnerable Brain: The Repercussions of Concussions You Never Knew You Had     109
Cosmetic Neurology: The Potential for Pharmaceutical Cognitive Enhancement Is Vast and Possibly Irresistible     123
Meditation and Neurofeedback: Going in for a Tune-up: Why Tinkering with Brain Waves Can Improve Attention     139
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: Sacrifice Your Slumber andYou'll Perform as Well as if You've Had a Few Stiff Drinks     151
Recreational Drugs, Alcohol and Other Neurotoxins: The Cognitive Consequences of What You Smoke, Drink, Eat and Breathe     165
What Your Doctor Forgot to Tell You: Prescription Drugs and "Safe" Over-the-Counter Meds May Account for Your Fogginess     177
The Last Place You Look: Thyroid Low? Blood Pressure High? A Host of Common Midlife Disorders Pack a Cognitive Wallop     189
Staring into the Eye of the Tiger: Deep in the Grip of Alzheimer's Disease at the Age of Sixty, Joanna Graciously Invites Us into Her World     204
Do You Really Want to Know?: As Opportunities for Early Assessment and Intervention Become Available, Will You Embrace Them?     217
Emerging Triumphant: How to Stockpile Neurons: The Habits of the Cognitively Well-Endowed     228
Conclusion     253
Acknowledgments     259
Resources     267
Notes     269
Selected Bibliography     297
Index     301

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2007


    I heard the author on a radio talk show and wasted little time getting the book. Carved in Sand describes her effort to tackle memory loss due to middle age - but in fact, discovered a few other issues that contributed to her memory problems. This is an interesting and informative book because it describes what we know about our brains and how they work when we get older -- and better yet, what we can do about it. HINT: Crosswords & Dancing. One more thing - the author's writing sytle is amazing. Her writing pulls you along and engages. You'll not only learn a great deal from this book - but you will enjoy reading it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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