All my life I have observed how American society treats the elderly and how all people (young and old alike!) seem to think that older people are rundown, useless, thoughtless creatures of no further worth. Older people seem to act out this stereotype as if it is expected of them. Some retire not just from work, but from life itself.
The attitude I really bridle against is “I’m too old to learn new things. My brain just doesn’t work like it used to.”
Eager to find a dissenting opinion to this myth, I discovered a book in the library called “The Mature Mind” by Gene D. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. Subtitled “The Positive Power of the Aging Brain” it sounded like just the ticket.
I myself am only in my forties, but I have an active interest in cognition, so I wanted to find out what I could expect in the future, brainwise.
This book presents a really optimistic, upbeat, AND realistic depiction of how an older person’s brain works. As it turns out, older brains display a little reduction in the speed of transmission of signals, but the wisdom and experience gained by older brains creates new pathways, hookups between nerve cells, and increased numbers of brain cells than younger people. Older people use both sides of their brains with ease, while younger folk tend to use one part at a time (whichever part corresponds to the task at hand). These advantages cause older people to have more “out of the box” solutions to problems, because they have vast reserves of information to draw on.
For example, the author writes about his father-in-law Howard and his wife Gisele who came from out of town to visit the author and his family. After exiting the Washington DC subway system, the elderly man and his wife found that no taxis would stop, no bus service was available, and it was too far to walk. Outdoors was a driving snowstorm; a freezing day that numbed their fingers and toes. Since they had arrived in town early, the author had not yet arrived to pick them up, and was unreachable by phone. Howard noticed a nice, cozy and warm pizza place across the street. He and Gisele walked in and ordered a pizza for delivery.
“Oh, there’s one more thing,” Howard told the cashier.
“What’s that?” the cashier asked.
“We want you to deliver us with it.” Howard replied.
And that’s how they arrived at the house, pizza in hand, for dinner that night.
It is solutions like this that the aging brain excels in. In the author’s words “Age allows our brains to accumulate a repetoire of strategies developed from a lifetime of experience.”
He also states the following, in accordance with his own research:
- The brain can grow new brain cells.
- Older adults can learn as well as young people.
- Connections between neurons are not fixed throughout life.
- Intelligence is not a matter of how many neurons you have and how fast those neurons work.
And some more facts:
- The brain is continually resculpting itself in response to experience and learning.
- The brain’s emotional circuitry matures and becomes more balanced with age (which means we have more control over our emotions as we age).
- The brain’s two hemispheres are more equally used by older adults.
These facts are pretty much verbatim from the book. They are very encouraging to me as I am now in “middle age.”
The author also reveals that there are several lifestyle habits that help the brain retain and improve function. They include challenging mental exercises (e.g. crossword puzzles 4 times a week), physical exercise, correct nutrition, no smoking, and social activities .
If you want to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend this book.
The second half of life is full of promise!!!