Carol Barnes has become increasingly optimistic on the normal effects of aging on memory in four decades of research.

Barnes, a psychologist and neuroscientist who heads the University of Arizona’s Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, offered some thoughts on aging in a recent interview:

Senility is not the endpoint of old age.

When I first started, people thought, “You got old, you got senile. You lose millions of brain cells, and it was very dismal.

“That’s not correct. You do lose brain cells in dementing disease, but not in normal aging.”

Most of us will not develop dementia.

“Of all the people who are 71 and above, how many are demented? 14 percent. That means 86 percent of us are not demented in our lifetime.”

We can prevent memory loss.

  • Exercise. It is protective against some brain volume loss with aging.
  • Wear a helmet when cycling or skiing. “It’s particularly important after 50 years of age, because if you have a serious head injury or are out over two minutes, that is one of the most serious predictors of who is going to have Alzheimer’s disease.”
  • Eat well. The flavonoids in foods such as dark chocolate, nuts and red wine are protective of brain health. Eat a Mediterranean diet with lots of olive oil.
  • Take your blood tests seriously. Some reversible signs of dementia are caused by imbalances in essential vitamins such as B12 and D. You just need to keep proper levels.

Aging has its benefits.

“The one really good thing about aging is you focus more on the positives and you discount the negatives. This is a treat. This is a treasure for older people. ... It’s called wisdom.”

Barnes’ institute was recently awarded a $5 million matching grant by the McKnight Brain Research Foundation.

Earlier this month, Barnes received a Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.

She said it had previously been given “to all my heroes and heroines in the field” and called it a recognition of her approach, which centers on the science of healthy aging.

“I had to fight — you can’t believe — to be accepted in terms of my experimental questions, because aging is not a disease. ... ”

Barnes continues to develop a variety of sophisticated research techniques in collaboration with researchers in many other fields toward a very simply stated goal:

“I don’t want to extend life span — not interested, completely not — but if I could optimize memory for as long as my life is going to be in effect, that is my goal.”