Thursday, April 03, 2008

Positive Changes in Older Minds: The Aging Brain

With all the concern today about Alzheimer's and other diseases causing memory loss, it's easy to forget the positive changes that take place in our human brain as we age. Truth is, contrary to long accepted beliefs that our brain power inevitably declines, our minds continue to grow and flourish with age.

In his book, The Mature Mind, Gene Cohen documents findings of aging research that shows "not only does the brain retain its capacity to form new memories, which entails making new connections between brain cells, but it can grow entirely new brain cells -- a stunning finding filled with potential."

Dr. Cohen goes on to say that "We've also learned that older brains can process information in a dramatically different way that younger brains. Older people can use both sides of their brains for tasks that younger people use only one side to accomplish."

"A great deal of scientific work has also confirmed the 'use it or lose it' adage: the mind grows stronger from use and from being challenged in the same way that muscles grow stronger with exercise," says Cohen, who is director of the Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities at George Washington University.

The Mature Mind presents authoritative research and real-life examples to show the positive power of older minds. In a highly readable style, Dr. Cohen describes scientific studies on what happens to the brain as it ages and offers inspiring life stories of ordinary people who demonstrate our creative potential as we live into elderhood.

The author contends that previous definitions of the final stage of life have been too limited. He extends the common "old age" stage to include four distinct developmental phases which often overlap one another:

1. Midlife reevaluation: Not the same as a "midlife crisis", it is a time of exploration and transition -- a quest for the true and meaningful in one's life (ages 40 through 65).

2. Liberation: A time to experiment, innovate, and let go of inhibitions from earlier in life (late 50's to late 60's).

3. Summing up: A time for life review, recapitulation, resolution, and giving back to society (late 60's through the 70's to early 80's).

4. Encore: A final phase of returning to themes from one's life, often expressed in wonderful and surprising ways (80's until the end of life).

Cohen says we have inner drives or desires which he calls the "Inner Push" that motivate us to move through the life phases -- drives that work in concert with changes in the aging brain.

The "inner push" and four phases ring true from my own life experience and from people I've known over the years. At my age of 63, I'm early to the the "summing up" stage. Most all of my work with people on ethical-spiritual wills has been with individuals at that stage and a few who've reached the "encore" phase of their lives.

In his book, Dr. Cohen introduces the concept of "developmental intelligence" which he sees as the "greatest benefit of the aging brain/mind." He defines it as "the degree to which a person has manifested his or her unique neurological, emotional, intellectual, and psychological capabilities." Cohen shows how to cultivate developmental intelligence to take advantage of its rewards as we age.

The most practical and usable information in The Mature Mind covers activities for "brain fitness" -- all of which work to boost clarity, power, and subtlety of the brain/mind significantly:

1. Exercise physically: Numerous studies have shown that regular, aerobic exercise sharply lowers the risk of Alzheimer's and other dementias and increases the number of connections between brain cells.

2. Exercise mentally: Engaging in mentally challenging activities stimulates the mind and new experiences boost brain development -- generating new synapses and other neural structures.

3. Pick challenging leisure activities: Reduction in risk of dementia is related to the frequency of engaging in activities such as dancing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board games or musical instruments, and reading.

4. Achieve mastery: Having a sense of control and mastery is vital for mental and physical health of older people. The feelings of empowerment and sense of accomplishment from mastering activities boosts the immune system and stimulates brain health.

5. Establish strong social networks: Maintaining social relationships reduces stress and lowers blood pressure, reducing the risks of stroke and brain damage. Social activity combats loneliness which causes many adverse health effects while strong social networks have a profound positive impact on health of the brain, mind, and body.

In his book, Dr. Cohen also deals with the subjects of cognition, memory, and wisdom as well as cultivating social intelligence and "reinventing" retirement. He discusses creativity and aging in the last chapter, expanding upon his previous book, The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life. Especially interesting to me were his findings that creativity among older people follow three basic patterns which Cohen describes as commencing creativity, continuing or changing creativity, and creativity connected with loss.

The Mature Mind is a mind-changing book which will awaken you to the positive power of the aging brain and increase your sense of control over its health and well-being. Read it to learn how to realize the amazing potential for your life as you grow older.
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