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Enhancing Your Brain As You Age


“The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a
suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for
life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When
it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain any
more so it eats it! It’s rather like getting tenure.” ~David
Dennett, “Consciousness Explained”

And true to form, I have a client who’s a tenured college
professor, head of the department, who is “going out of his
mind.” He came to me for coaching because he’s deeply
dissatisfied with his life, and wants to change careers.

Without violating confidentiality, I can say this client is
desperate for new experiences, for meaning and purpose, and for
something new in his life. He is “hamstrung” by a high salary
and a less-than-30-hour week with long vacations, but is
beginning to see the “price” is not worth it.

Though this gentleman happens to actually be a tenured
professor, he is representative of many clients I have who are
50 or older.

As more Baby Boomers “come of age,” the studies about aging
continue to pump in lots of new information to counteract former
stereotypes. Science is discovering that “old” rats given new
toys and new playmates start growing new brain cells, and better
brain cells. Imagine!

And, poignantly, this is what the professor laments the most –
the fact that he isn’t encouraged, or allowed, to innovate
within the department; and that there’s no camaraderie.

Let’s take a look at some myths about aging and the brain, to
encourage you to keep learning, and to keep acquiring new toys,
and new playmates. And, oh yes, get toys that give you a good
workout, both physically and mentally. That’s one of the keys to
resilience as you age!

MYTH No. 1: Once you’re born, all you can look forward to is a
long and steady loss of brain cells (aka neurons).

REALITY: “Stem” cells in the human brain can create new neurons
indefinitely, and relatively idle neurons will extend their
branches to carry signals to and from other neurons
indefinitely, under the proper circumstances.

MYTH No. 2: We can’t get smarter as we age.

REALITY: Mice (are we like mice … you be the judge) in an
enriched environment, with interesting toys and playmates,
showed an increase in 4000 new neurons in the hippocampus
(crucial to memory and learning) compared to 2400 in the control
group with no toys or playmates. And older mice’s brains also
got bigger and better! And quickly! (Diamond and Rosenzweig,
Elizabeth Gould, Princeton)

MYTH No. 3: Creativity diminishes with age.

REALITY: According to Ralph Warner, author of “Get a Life: You
Don’t Need a million to Retire Well,” “older artists often do
well, commonly experiencing a sustained burst of exciting
creativity after 65.”

MYTH No. 4: There isn’t much you can do to avoid Alzheimer’s.

REALITY: According to David Snowden, Ph.D., “Aging with Grace,”
hardworking brains (the ones that get used in learning new
things all during life) do well because their stimulated cells
branch frequently, resulting in millions of new connections
(synapses) so the brain actually becomes larger and…evidence
continues to accumulate that a larger brain can cope with the
effects of brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s and strokes.
Theoretically because a larger brain has more active tissue, and
therefore a greater number of ways to work around diseased or
damaged areas.

MYTH No. 5: What you’ve got, is all you’ll ever get.

REALITY: According to Paul Tallal, Rutgers University
neuroscientist, “You create your brain from the input you get.”
By this, she means intellectual stimulation strengths the brain
because in the normal course of living, our brains constantly
reorganize themselves, which is called “neuroplasticity.” And
neuroplasticity speeds up with the amount and complexity of the
new information our brains receive.

MYTH No. 6: As you age, it’s too hard to learn new things, so
stick with what you already know.

REALITY: According to Arnold Scheibel, head of UCLA’s Brain
Research Institute, the brain’s axons and dendrites (which send
and receive messages) grow fastest with new material. “The
important thing is to be actively involved in areas unfamiliar
to you,” say Golden and Tsiaras, in “Building a Better Brain.”
“Anything that is intellectually challenging can probably serve
as a kind of stimulus for dendritic growth, which means it adds
to the computational reserves in your brain.” Sounds to me like
building new hard drive, yes?

MYTH No. 7: Watching the Discovery Channel suffices for
stimulation.

REALITY: Dr. Robert Friedland reports that adults over age 70
with brain-stimulating hobbies were two and a half times less
likely to suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s later in life
than were those whose main leisure activity was watching TV.

MYTH No. 8: In order to stimulate and grow the brain, you must
engage in formal schooling.

REALITY: According to Warner, traditional academic subjects
aren’t the only answer. The key is to find something both new
and challenging to you. “Thus a Latin professor,” writes Warner,
“might do better to learn how to prune fruit trees, line her
car’s brakes or even solve difficult jigsaw puzzles than to
write a scholarly essay parsing Cicero’s rhetoric.”

MYTH No. 9: I can ignore it for a while and it will still be
there when I get back.

REALITY: Not! According to neurologist Oliver Sacks, the brain
uses a lot of energy and blood, something we can’t “afford” to
no purpose. If neurons dedicated to perform a given skill are
not being used, they’ll either atrophy or be co-opted to some
other function.

Myth No. 10: Intellectual stimulation is enough.

REALITY: According to Marion Diamond, aerobic exercise, such as
swimming and jogging, may be especially beneficial to brain
function in aging people, because it tends to keep blood vessels
in better shape. And according to the Salk Institute study, mice
that exercised regularly on a running wheel grew twice as many
new brain cells (again, in the hippocampus) as other mice.

So there you have it! Jog on out for those new toys and new
playmates and get a better brain and a better life! And it’s
never too late unless you don’t start now.

 

 

 

About the author:
©Susan Dunn, MA, Emotional Intelligence Coach,
http://www.susandunn.cc . Coaching, internet courses,
teleclasses and ebooks on Emotional Intelligence.
Mailto:[email protected] for free ezine (put “ezine” for
subject line). I train and certify EQ coaches. Email me for info
on this fast, affordable, no-residency program.

 


 

 

 

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