It’s the time of year again when we start looking forward to what a new year will bring as well as saying goodbye to the recent past of the old year. Auld Lang Syne as poet Robert Burns called it or days gone by. Thinking of the recent days gone by, I ruminated on how much I learned in the last year about the changing face of aging. I read plenty of dreary articles about the supposed inevitable cognitive decline, which comes with aging. There are the articles advising us to talk to our children in our sixties about our finances and health and how we should make a plan for the kids to take over for us on both fronts as we age. Well, poppycock. That’s how I felt as I processed what these authors advised. I kept thinking about all the eighty and ninety somethings with complete control of their minds, senses and lives, often continuing to live in their own homes rather than an institutionalized housing arrangement. How is it that a few maintain their cognitive selves right up to their last breath, while the majority slowly decline into a muddled mental state? Was that even true?
As it turns out, the belief that our brain inevitably declines is totally untrue. There is nothing inevitable about it. At universities like Stanford and Cornell, studies of the brain over the past ten years using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have busted a number of myths concerning our brain power, from children to aging adults. Back in the 1970’s when I was just getting my first buzz on from a nice glass of cheap wine, we used to sit around imbibing and joking about killing off brain cells with alcohol. Ahhhh, youth. At the time, it was believed we only had so many brain cells and alcohol was a brain cell killer. But, hey, we also believed our twenty something brains were at their peak performance and would soon begin the inevitable decline toward old age when we couldn’t even balance our checkbooks anymore. But, the technological revolution of the late twentieth century produced some incredible gadgets with even more incredible computing power, among them the machine responsible for mapping our brains during different experiments with various aged subjects. Though the research is complicated and there’s a lot more out there on the subject than I could ever hope to cover in these pages, the bottom line is cognitive decline is NOT inevitable. There are even indications your brain is actually at its peak somewhere in your 50’s.
September of this year, I heard the term neuroplasticity for the first time. Neuro what, you ask? Plasticity meaning the brain is pliable, adapting to its changing circumstances a lot like plastic can be molded into different forms. The term use it or lose it never held greater meaning. Our brain may actually have the ability to grow additional tissue if we just keep using it. In fact, over the past couple of years, as a survivor of one of the last polio epidemics in the United States, I researched findings on post-polio syndrome. One of the theories behind the recovery of people like myself who exhibit few residual effects from the disease is the idea that polio victims’ neurons grew extensions to compensate for the damage done by polio. Our bodies heal from cuts and broken bones by growing new tissue. Our muscles can be strengthened, the minute little tears from exercise mending to create more mass. Why is it, then, we bought into the belief our brain can’t grow more intelligent or recover from an occasional sip of wine or even trauma or maintain its capacity to manage our finances as we age?
In our society there is a strong belief that if we eat a healthy diet, get some exercise, take vitamins and use the medications our doctor prescribes, we can stave off aging…to a point. Our society believes it is inevitable our bodies and cognitive abilities will decline. The specter of dementia looms ever present as we have ‘senior moments’ when we can’t find the right word, walk into a room and can’t remember what we came for, or we forget where we left the car keys. Well, eventually something will lead to our demise. But, believing our brain is most certainly one of those parts is no longer justified. Research is now proving that belief to be a myth of aging. Sure, we’ve all heard of the heart doctor still performing surgery in his nineties. But, that’s unusual, right? What if that’s really what the norm is if we all believe we can continue to maintain our cognitive capacity and we work at it and I mean really work at it, instead of buying into our societal myth of inevitable mental decline? If we continue to use our brain, our mental capacity can stay intact. Using our brain means staying engaged with other people, with life, with learning new things, accepting new ideas, absorbing and growing like a baby in the first year of life, opening new neural pathways. A growth mentality where we continue to learn and grow, even as we age, is the key to keeping our cognitive abilities intact.
As we move into 2015 and leave 2014 behind us, let’s also leave the myths of aging behind us as well. Make 2015 the year you take control of your aging process. Determine right now to add a new activity to your 2015 calendar. Learn something new. Try something new. Go somewhere new. Get out of your comfort zone. Live on your personal edge. We are the generation who can reshape attitudes about aging. We are the myth busters. And, the first step is to use our brains.