Copyright 2006 Mary Desaulniers
My parents were in their early fifties when I turned 22 and the chasm that separated us seemed unbridgeable. My father had his hat and tie on everywhere he wenteven when he mowed the lawn. My mother kept indoors most of the time and warned us girls that no man would marry a woman made brown by the sun. I used to wonder if their brains had turned to mush.
Now I look at my 22 year old son and chuckle at the chasm that yawns between us. With his mp3 looped permanently over his neck, pants baggy and cuffed, he looks like an alien from a distant star. I have no doubt the as far as he is concerned, my brain has gone to mush.
Yet great as these differences seem, research suggests that there is very little difference in capacity between a 50 year old and a 25 year old brain. The myth of the post 40 brain decline is just that a myth. According to Dan Gray in “The Surprising Power of the Aging Brain,”( Time Jan 16/2006) neurologists and psychologists are coming to the conclusion that “the brain at midlife a period increasingly defined as the years 35-65 and even beyondis much more elastic, much more supple than anyone ever realized.” Far from declining, the 50 year old brain can reorganize and reinforce its neural networks in response to new stimuli and experiences. The basic network for neural growth that was set in place in our infancy continues to develop and expand even when we age and the structural capacity for this growth is unlimited. In essence, the brain is like the webthere is no end to its memory capacity or functional ability.
Gray reports specifically on 2 aspects of brain activity that are alive and well in the 50+ group.
One is the increase of white matter in the prefrontal region of the brain, which is composed of nerve cells sheathed with myelinthe neural glue that makes connections possible. Myelin is the Grand Central Station of emotional and intellectual connectionsthe seat of our intelligence and humanity. As long as we maintain a high level of brain activity in our middle age, we can increase the “myelination” of the brain.
A second aspect is the tendency of both hemispheres of the brain to work together. This is another reason why the 50+ brain can often outperform its younger counterparts. A study at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care found that as people age, their ability to focus on one activity in one part of the brain decreases, which explains why older people are easily “distracted.” Yet this distraction suggests that different areas of the brain are working simultaneously which explains why older people can often access higher reasoning processes (such as intuition) by using both hemispheres at the same time.
Like any other muscle, the brain can only function at its peak capacity when it is used consistently. What are the steps we can take to ensure a strong and healthy brain in our later years?
1.Pursue leisure activities. Read books and magazines. Knit with friends, go for a walk, play bridge. Leisure activities can reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia. A study involving close to 1800 people up to age 65 showed that those who were involved with leisure activities had 38% less risk of developing dementia.
2.Read and write Poetry. In the famous Nuns’ Study, researchers concluded that the sisters who had more resilient brains later in life were the ones who tended to use multi-syllabic words and richer vocabulary in their diary entries. Those who developed dementia tended to use simple, monosyllabic words. The sisters with the more resilient brains also demonstrated stronger “density of ideas” in their writingwhich researchers defined as the average number of ideas expressed in each grouping of 10 words. Idea density reflects the brain’s capacity to integrate memory, language, thought and emotion within a complex of words. Writing prose or poetry that creates layers of meaning within one metaphor is the best example of idea density. It makes sense that writing in general, specifically writing poetry, can supercharge your brain.
3.Again and again, studies confirm the relationship between exercise and a healthy brain. A recent study shows that exercise creates significant anatomical differences in the grey and white matter areas of the brain. Aging brings about a shrinking of these areas that closely matches declines in cognitive performance. However, cardiovascular fitness through exercise actually slows down this decline.
4.Eat a healthy diet. Avoid foods that are rich in fatty red meats and whole fat dairy products that contribute to high cholesterol levels in the brain; cholesterol promotes production of a toxic protein that attacks myelin and breaks down neural connections in the brain, leaving a trail of plaques that hamper brain function. Eat whole grains and legumes as these are rich in lecithin . Eat fish, high in omega 3 fatty acids( good fats) which have anti-inflammatory properties that can prevent the formation of plaques in the brain. Have 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables for their powerful anti-oxidant benefits . Finally increase consumption of Soy Protein, rich in phytonutrients and gives you all the benefits of protein without the fat.
5.Learn new things and take risks. Evidence shows that learning new activities( starting a new project, hobby , business or venture) is exactly what is needed to prevent the loss of myelin in the brain. The brain is plastic which means it is capable of regeneration when stimulated by new activities. Every new sensation or experience carves a new neural pathway in the brain. The diaries of Darwin are filled with dead ends; these were risks he took and never stopped taking until the time became ripe for his emergence. The best way to nurture your brain is to cultivate a vision, then approach your vision from different angles without abandoning the path, taking new turns when the last one does not work for you, always being willing to take further risks , in fact expecting to make mistakes not only because mistakes serve as the most meaningful guides but because the success that comes eventually is a numbers game.
6. Last but not leastlove and enjoy what you have. Be thankful for the abundance you have been blessed with and give generously to those you can serve. A positive sense of purpose and a healthy optimism can do wonders to ensure longevity in the brain.