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Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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The Amazing Aging Mind


Consider this: 

  • Grandma Moses didn't begin painting until she was 76 years old.
  • Frank Lloyd Wright began design of the famous Guggenheim museum at the age of 76.
  • Goethe finished writing "Faust" at 81. 
  • Benjamin Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris at the age of 77 and signed our Constitution when he was 81.
  • Picasso was still painting when he died at 91.
  • George Burns was still performing in Las Vegas at the age of 95.

        The assumption has always been that as we age, we decline mentally. And that assumption is reinforced for us when we lose our keys…again…or suddenly forget the name of someone we’ve known for years…or find our reading glasses in the refrigerator. We call these “senior moments.” And face it; we all have them.              

        But, some intriguing new research may indicate that our senior moments are not indicative of an overall decline in mental capacity at all, but rather a change in how our brains work as we age. And that research is very encouraging.

Am I losing my mind?

        The short answer is, “no.” You are “changing” your mind. 
        As we age, the processing power that involves the portion of the brain that deals with analysis and details does decline. This is the part that does math, remembers lists and recalls the name of your best friend at your high school reunion; and that’s why we seem to begin struggling in those areas.
        The good news is that as this occurs, our brains tend to compensate in ways that make us more creative and insightful. And how this happens is fascinating. 

Do I Need a tune-up?            

        Yes, and we’re all under warranty. 
         It was once thought that the brain didn’t regenerate or repair itself. But, more recent research shows that our brains have an amazing ability to do just that.
         According to researchers at UCLA, recent brain studies including MRIs and post-mortem exams show that myelination, a process that keeps our brain circuits open and running smoothly, continues well into our 50’s and 60’s…particularly in the temporal lobe which processes visual memories, language, meaning and emotion.
          In addition, as we age, our brains improve at moving the work of thinking from one portion of the brain to another.
          We are all of two minds…the analytical side and the creative side. When we are younger, the analytical side tends to be dominant. But, as we age and our analytical brain capacity decreases, our creative brain tends to compensate. In fact, according to neuroscientists at Duke University, the brain may actually reorganize itself, allowing the two hemispheres to communicate in ways they never did when we were younger. 
         So, we can be encouraged that even as we struggle with a decline in our analytical abilities, we may notice that those thinking abilities which involve creativity, visionary thinking and inventiveness are actually growing. 

Am I older and wiser?

        Probably so. 
        World-renowned neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg in his book “The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger as Your Brain Grows Older” reports that though the brain diminishes in some tasks as it ages, it gains in many ways. Most notably, it increases in what he terms “wisdom”: the ability to draw upon knowledge and experience gained over a lifetime to make quick and effective decisions.
        In addition, new research conducted recently by Dr. Dilip Jeste of the University of California, San Diego proves that wisdom develops with aging as a result of the brain slowing down resulting in a decrease in impulsivity. According to Dr. Jeste, “Older people are less likely to respond thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli because their brains have slowed down compared to younger people. This, in fact is what we call wisdom."
        So, Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare was right on the money. Being able to run fast…or think fast…doesn’t always win the race. At our age, we know how to use our knowledge and experience to the best of our abilities. We know how to winnow out the unnecessary information and utilize the vast storehouse of information we all carry around.
        Furthermore, it is thought that the increased communication between the two hemispheres of the brain which occurs as we age often results in flashes of insight which may have been impossible at a younger age. That’s because the younger, analytical brain often is bogged down in the details while the older brain is freer to make connections leading to flashes of insight. Perhaps this is the genesis of wisdom.

Is there a catch?         

        Isn’t there always? 
        As is true with the body, if you don’t use it you lose it.
        There’s a word we all need to learn. "Neuroplasticity" The definition of neuroplasticity is as follows: “The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.” (medicinenet.com) This ability declines with disuse just as a muscle gets weaker with disuse.
        So here’s the truth of the matter. If we don’t challenge and exercise our minds in some way every day, we’re in danger of losing them. The process of myelination slows, the connections between the synapses decrease or fail to grow and we may end up facing true mental decline unnecessarily. Veg out in the recliner in front of the television all day every day, and you’re inviting dementia to share your TV dinner.

 So, what have we learned?          

        We’ve learned that our analytical brainpower decreases as we age, but our creative brainpower increases. 
        We’ve learned that our brains reorganize themselves, and the two halves of our brains communicate more efficiently as we get older.
        We’ve learned that our brains continue to repair themselves well into our sixties.
        And we’ve learned that we have to “exercise” our brains to keep those healthy processes going.

 How can I exercise my brain?

        Good news!  You need only to remember two things.
  1.  Variety is the spice of life…and of brain health. The key is to learn new things or to do routine things in new ways. This can be as simple as driving a different way to town and as challenging as learning a new language. Anything that requires you to use your brain in a way that is not rote, routine or habitual will help keep it healthy. The important thing is to challenge your mind every single day in some way.
  2.  Honor and explore your creative brain. After all, it has taken over as your analytical brain has slowed. Accept that gift and play with it.         This can seem a bit challenging or even scary to some of us. After all, we can’t all be artists, can we? But, don't worry. The thing to remember here is that there are all kinds of creativity. Perhaps you are organizationally creative. Perhaps you are a creative problem solver. Or perhaps you are a creative leader. We all express our creativity in different ways.            

          So do what you love and what you’re good at, but don’t assume that your old way of thinking is somehow superior to your aging brain’s way of thinking. Accept that your changing brain may surprise you with new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. Then have fun with your miraculous aging brain.  See where it may lead you!
         Remember Grandma Moses and George Burns? They honored their maturing brains and used them to bring art and laughter into the world.  Who knows?  Next time you lose your keys, it may be because your aging brain is working on the first chapter of the next great American novel!

by Paula Moore Hurtt,
Former Web Content Writer/Editor for ShelbyBoomer.com
(material for this article was gathered from TIME, Wikipaedia, medicinenet.com)