Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks – How to Renew an Aging Brain

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We know that care of the brain is essential for the grand kids. What about us–the almost or over sixty somethings? What goes for the little ones goes for us as well!

My mother used to say that her brain was stuck in cement. She could never learn as quickly as we (the children) did because her brain had hardened with age. This assumption about the brain has been tossed aside as another urban legend down the dust. New research shows that neuroplasticity is a feature of all brains, young and old. What this means is that whether you are 90 or 2, you are capable of learning new tricks.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt to its environment. It can generate new neuronal circuitry, new cells, compensate for weakness by replacing malfunctioning connections and cells with new ones. In fact, nothing in the brain is hardwired. Like the salamander that can regenerate its tail, the brain can re-grow new neurons. It is this compensating mechanism that points the way to brain longevity. We need not consign ourselves to the fate of slow and palsied years. Aging is not synonymous with the loss of memory and cognitive skills. What can we do to ensure a thriving brain in our senior years?

Break Out Of Routine
Scientists have found that blindness from birth can trigger the development of a visual cortex that can hear and feel. The brain area devoted to sight has been conscripted by the auditory function. People blind since birth are literally capable of hearing with their eyes or looking with their ears. We can improve our multi-dexterity by doing something different: take a new route to work, travel to a new country, learn a new language, and learn a new skill. Doing something out of the ordinary forces your brain to carve new routes, increase synaptic connections and over-ride obsolete circuits.

Start Running
Recent studies on aerobic activity and brain function have turned out some interesting facts: aerobic training increases brain volume in older adults while non-aerobic activities such as stretching and toning do not produce the same effect; seniors who are aerobically trained seem more capable of sustained attention; they are less susceptible to distractions. Tests also reveal that seniors engaged in aerobic training scored significantly better on neuropsychological tests than their non-aerobic colleagues. Cardio workouts like running seem to dissolve the effects of negative stress on the brain and bolster the body’s immune system.

Cultivate a Passion
Faced with a challenging situation, our brains are forced to develop new strategies and new neural circuits. But faced with a challenging situation that we love, that excites us in a positive way, our brains are persuaded to forge new neural conversations between different parts of the brain. Passion provides the lubricating catalyst for increased synaptic firing and connections, a situation popularized by the saying, “Cells that fire together stay wired together.” This is the reason we learn so much more rapidly when we are excited by the material we work with, be it a new hobby, a book in the making or a new business. If, as studies suggest, aging is caused by a dramatic reduction in functional connections within the brain, then cultivating a passion is a sure way to fire up a disrupted system.

Focused attention during meditation alters the structure of the brain. Studies show that consistent meditators activate the prefrontal cortex that is located at the front of the brain; at the same time, the limbic section of the brain located at the back, slows down. It is this attention that promotes neuroplasticity in the brain. Moreover, meditation increases the thickness of the cortex, the outer area of the brain most susceptible to age-related thinning. This increase in thickness is often associated with the ability to integrate emotions and thought, the left brain and the right brain.

The issue with healthy aging is not so much skin rejuvenated with Botox or liposuction of flabby tissues, but a healthy and cognitively sharp brain. This we can have at our disposal without a huge expense. All we need to do are four things: break out of routine, go for a run, nurture a passion and meditate.

Bianca Tora is a writer interested in the relationship between lifestyle and the brain, specifically the area of emotional regulation and control. She has published a book on anger management for children. Visit her at http://www.help-your-child-with-anger.com

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