By Eliza Thomas, Experience Life
Scientists once believed brainpower peaked at early middle age. Now they know better. In a January 2006 Time magazine article, writer Jeffery Kluger reported that recent studies have shown that far from slowing down during the course of a lifetime, the aging brain begins to use new cognitive systems and to cross-index existing ones in new ways.
At UCLA, for example, neurologists studying myelin, the fatty sheath of connective tissue that helps conduct nerve signals throughout the brain, have found that myelin development peaks in healthy adult brains between the ages of 45 and 50. The scientists postulate that this may allow older brains faster processing and information-retrieval speeds than younger brains, whose myelin stores have yet to fully mature.
In fact, older brains operate quite a bit differently than their younger counterparts, according to neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza, PhD, associate professor of psychology and brain sciences at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. He found that older brains increasingly use both the left and right hemispheres of the prefrontal cortex in tandem, rather than working independently of each other, like younger brains do. While Cabeza speculates that this phenomenon may be a trick the brain uses to compensate for age-related cognitive decline, the integration of the hemispheres can sometimes become so efficient that the older brain’s reasoning and thought processes operate better than ever.
Findings like these have led some experts to conclude that the brain at midlife — a stage increasingly defined as the years from 40 to 60 — is far more limber an organ than previously realized. It may even rival the young brain for qualities like temperament, comfort with ambiguity and the ability to interpret meanings.
That’s more support for our “with age comes wisdom” truism. It’s important to note, though, that the brain works a lot like a muscle. The more you use it, the healthier it becomes, say experts like Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD, author of The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain (Basic Books, 2005), and Sandra Cusak, PhD, and Wendy Thompson, MA, the authors of Mental Fitness for Life (Bull Publishing, 2006). Just as working out helps you stay in top physical shape, mental-fitness routines boost your brain’s power, strength and stamina.
Cusak and Thompson developed their seven-step Mental Fitness for Life course based on current research on cognitive function in the aging brain and their own research with the senior residents of Century House, a 2,100-member recreation center for seniors on the Canadian west coast. No matter your age, whether 33 or 103, insist Cusak and Thompson, by challenging your brain in this way, you can support deft and dexterous brain functioning for years to come.
Next: 7 Ways to Boost Your Brain As You Age
1. Set Goals: Goal setting has rarely been a focus for personal development work with people over 50, write Cusak and Thompson. But research suggests that those in their “third age” who undertake goals in an entirely new area, such as an untried foreign language or musical instrument, enjoy special brain-boosting benefits.
2. Power Think: “Simply put, power thinking means out with the old beliefs and in with the new,” explain the authors. It can be accomplished by identifying limiting beliefs about yourself, challenging them and replacing them with new beliefs about your potential for limitless growth as you age.
3. Be Creative: New research suggests that people can develop their creativity into later life, say Cusak and Thompson. And creativity is not restricted to just artistic expression: It’s about bringing anything new — from ideas to ways of being in the world — into existence.
4. Accentuate the Positive: Having a positive attitude is critical to healthy brain aging. “Research tells us that optimistic people live as much as six years longer,” says Cusak. Optimism can be cultivated, even by sworn pessimists. By actively working to see the positive in every situation, you can gradually adjust your outlook on life in ways that support both brain and body health.
5. Learn to Remember, Remember to Learn: You can support your memory by adopting the “lifelong learning” approach. “Learning new things causes the dendrites [a component of neurons] to grow and branch wildly, improving brain power,” write the authors.
6. Speak Your Mind: Share your well-earned perspective with others. Consider starting a “conversational salon” or “philosophers’ cafe” in your community.
7. Have a Plan: The final step to ensuring the Mental Fitness for Life plan is having a strong strategy to implement and support the first six steps. The authors advise an ongoing assessment and adjustment approach: “Tailor-make your mental fitness program daily, weekly, monthly and yearly,” they write. “Change it as you change yourself.”