Aging and the Brain…


This post is a little different than those previously posted, but it’s relevant for all of us, no matter what age you may be at.

A couple years ago a friend recommended a book called “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and researcher at the faculty of Columbia University. Dru had stumbled upon the book when investigating how one could recuperate from brain damage caused by a stroke, as her father had recently suffered one. Although that was her principle area of interest, she found the book to contain much more. In fact, each chapter is a journey undertaken by Doidge who travels to discuss with medical experts and neuroscientists what they have learned about the brain’s ability to change itself.

The outcome, in short, is that the brain is not fixed, nor compartmentalized as previously thought where specific actions of the mind and body are allocated to specific areas of the brain. That, in fact, the brain evokes elements of plasticity – it is flexible and non-compartmentalized – if one part of the brain is damaged another area can take up the slack for what the initial part was responsible for. Doidge also found that the brain is competitive, that aspects of the brain actually compete with one another to take over areas of the brain that are no longer being utilized (ex: losing one’s sight – the area of the brain that handled this function could now be used for other cognitive activities).

What I found most interesting concerns aging – how it affects the brain and what we can do as we age to keep it healthy and active – to improve cognition, awareness, memory and concentration. After finishing the book I gathered all the text blocks I’d underlined so that in the future, rather than rereading the book I could just read my notes as I worked on my personal plan to keep my brain functioning the best that it can (especially after all I’ve put it through!).

Dr. Doidge writes that through his investigations he learned of scientists and doctors who had discovered that without operation or medications they could make use of the brain’s ability to (provoke) change. From people who had what were thought to be incurable brain problems, to others who just wanted to improve the functioning of their brains as they aged, positive results could be obtained by understanding that the brain “can change its own structure and function through thought and activity.”

How does this relate to aging? During childhood we go through intense learning periods where every day delivers us new and challenging experiences. This continues through school and into early employment where we are intensely engaged in learning and acquiring new skills and abilities.

But as we master these skills, to a large degree we are no longer challenging ourselves as when we were younger, when everything was new to us. This is actually a nice aspect of getting older – growing wiser and being more experienced we can rely on what has already been learned, rather than having to continually learn – because continually learning is challenging. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the point – we need to be challenged.

“Middle age is often an appealing time because, all else being equal, it can be a relatively placid period compared with what has come before. Our bodies aren’t changing as they did in adolescence: we’re more likely to have a solid sense of who we are and be skilled at a career. We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary or master new skills.”

So, learning should never cease – we should be continually challenging ourselves.

“We now know that exercise and mental activity in animals generate and sustain more brain cells, and we have many studies confirming that humans who live mentally active lives have better brain function. The more education we have, the more socially and physically active we are, and the more we participate in mentally stimulating activities, the less likely we are to get Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.”

Not all activities are equal in this regard. however. “Those that involve genuine concentration – such as studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading or learning a new language, have been shown to provide the best results. Dancing, which requires learning new moves, is both physically and mentally challenging and requires much concentration.

“Activities such as reading the newspaper, practicing a profession of many years, and speaking our own language are mostly the replay of mastered skills, are not learning (or at least not the type of learning we are looking for). By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years.

“When it comes to allocating brain-processing power, brain maps are governed by competition for precious resources and the principle of use it or lose it. There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar or math to keep on top of it?’ You are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”

So what can we do?

Some mental exercises have already been mentioned, such a learning to play a musical instrument (which is like learning a new language), playing board games, solving challenging puzzles, or making a career change that requires that you master new skills and material are worthy of doing. And reading – but challenging reading that make you think and concentrate – followed up by being able to verbally explain the concepts covered, or writing up a summary, is high on the list.

But probably the best exercise for the brain is learning a new language. It can, however, also be the most difficult, for “as we age, the more we use our native language, the more it comes to dominate our linguistic map space.” Thus trying to take on a new one can be onerous, so much so that often the brain will utilize a different part of the cerebrum in order to make room for the new language, as the allotted space for linguistics has become so ingrained it isn’t accessible for the new language. It is looked upon by the brain as involving a new, very different type of skill. Which is often the case for how many of us even know what a preposition or article is, or can explain how the subjunctive tense is used in English? We speak, read and write our native languages, often not knowing what they entail grammatically, whereas understanding these terms is essential in order to learn a new language. So a different part of the brain is often used that can handle these new cognitive demands.

Learning a new language “requires intense focus, and anything that requires highly focused attention is what you are looking for. It is also proven to be excellent for improving and maintaining the memory. Matter of fact, learning a new language gradually sharpens everything, and the results can be highly beneficial.”

“Physical activity is also helpful not only because it creates new neurons but because the mind is based in the brain, and the brain needs oxygen. Walking, cycling or cardiovascular exercise strengthens the heart sea the blood vessels that supply the brain and helps people who engage in these activities fell mentally sharper. A brutal workout is not necessary, constant movements of the limbs will do. Simply walking, at a good pace, can stimulate the growth of new neurons.

“Exercise also stimulates our sensory and motor notices and maintains our brain’s balance system. These functions begin to deteriorate as we age, making us prone to falling and becoming housebound. Nothing speeds brain atrophy more than being immobilized int eh same environment. A cognitively rich physical activity ca help ward off balance problems and have the added benefit of being social, which also preserves brain health. Tai chi requires intense concentration on motor movements and stipulates the brain’s balance system, as does yoga.”

Brain exercises not only slow age-related cognitive decline but can lead to improved functioning. Such exercises have been shown to “turn back the clock” on people’s cognitive functioning so that their memories, problem-solving abilities, and language skills are more youthful again. In the studies referenced by Dr. Doidge, 80-year-olds who practiced brain exercises over just a few weeks for a couple of hours a day saw their cognitive abilities now equal those of people in their fifties.

So there you have it. When it comes to the brain, just like the body, it’s either use it or lose it.

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