Helpful advice on keeping your brain in good shape

A U3A art class proudly show off their work. File image.
A U3A art class proudly show off their work. File image.

How can we keep our brain in good shape? And, is it all ‘doom and gloom’ after 60? No, definitely not !

Exciting research from neuroscience reveals an infinite possibility of connections between neurons (or brain cells). We have approximately 100 billion of them and they are often referred to as our ‘grey matter’. We do not lose large numbers of neurons as was hitherto believed.

Indeed, we can continue to create new neurons (a process called neurogenesis) until we die. So, in theory, we can assume that we can continue to learn throughout our lives.

In addition, the brain is capable of making new connections (our ‘white matter’) as we adapt to changing circumstances throughout our lives, not only when we are young.

And autumn is a great time to take up something new for those in their “autumn years”. From libraries to college classes to University of the Third Age (U3A), there is plenty of choice locally.

It is more accurate to refer to people in their 60s and over as: sagacious, learned, wise, knowing, erudite, well-informed, well-read, elders of the community, rather than old folks with ‘ageing brains’. Of course, the brain changes over the years: younger people’s reaction and processing times are quicker, but older people have: Awider vocabulary; improved problem solving capacity because we use both sides of brain and we have a wealth of experience to draw on; better analytical skills; more rational, less impulsive decision making; good long-term memory; increased ability to make accurate judgments about people and finances; wisdom (knowledge for dealing with life’s problems, including conflict resolution).

Change is not the same as decay!

To fully reap the benefits of the brain’s plasticity, there is effort involved. (This is the quid pro quo!)

We must seek out new opportunities to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. Merely continuing to replay familiar skills is not quite enough. By the time we reach middle age, much of what we do is carried out on autopilot which can make the brain lazy.

Compare this era with earlier periods in your life such as starting your new career, becoming a parent for the first time, studying to improve your qualifications etc. By the time we are 70, it may be many years since we fully exercised our brains. What we have to find are new projects which will give the brain a reason to work harder again.

The key is to stimulate the brain frequently for optimum efficiency, and make sure that effort, concentration and intense focus are involved. However, they must also be activities we will really enjoy in order to sustain our motivation. So, take a look at the suggestions below which are sufficiently challenging to stimulate the kind of brain activity recommended by researchers:

l Learning a new language

l Learning to play a musical instrument

l A new physical activity involving fairly complex sequences such as T’ai Chi, Pilates, Yoga or a new dance which involves highly focused attention (and controlled breathing)

l Studying a new subject at a sufficiently challenging level (eg University of the Third Age, WEA, Lifelong Learning, Open University, FutureLearn, etc.)

l Reading a new author, newspaper, etc

l Doing the crossword in a different newspaper

l Learning a new complex board, card, computer or word game, etc.

l Attending stimulating new cultural events

l Making a career change (which could include voluntary work when you retire)

In addition, include some form of sufficiently active exercise to increase blood flow to the brain and encourage the birth of new neurons. Try to avoid being immobile for lengthy periods of time.

And, if a ‘friend’ asks you why on earth you are learning Italian ‘at your age’ and they tell you must be out of your mind, respond calmly (but assertively) that you have no intention of losing your mind and that’s exactly WHY you are doing it.

Don’t allow fear or embarrassment to hold you back. It’s time to learn.