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Neuroplasticity And The Aging Brain

Neuroplasticity And The Aging Brain

By Susan Williams

Are you worried about your brain health as you age? If you are, you are definitely not alone.

The University of Michigan conducted some research that discovered that of the people in their 50’s and 60’s,  “..nearly half of respondents to the National Poll on Healthy Aging felt they were likely to develop dementia as they aged, and nearly as many worried about this prospect.“.

So what can we do about this? Is this what we are all destined for?

Here’s the really good news.

First, the reality of actually losing cognitive ability from Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia or other conditions happens to less then 20% of people who have reached age 65. But what is even better news is that you can help to reduce your risk by doing certain activities focusing on keeping your brain healthy.

Back in June, I attended The Art Of Aging Forum and had the opportunity to hear Barbara Arrowsmith-Young present on neuroplasticity and what this means for an aging brain.

Barbara is the Founder of the Arrowsmith Program, an assessment process and a suite of cognitive exercises designed to stimulate and strengthen weak areas of cognitive functioning that underlie a range of learning difficulties. Barbara’s work has since been recognized as one of the first examples of the practical application of neuroplasticity which, simply put, is the ability of the brain to change and rewire itself over one’s lifetime.

I was fortunate to recently have the opportunity to speak with Barbara about neuroplasticity and more specifically what actions we can take today to help us maintain our own brain health as we age.

Here is our conversation;

These are the highlights of our discussion;

What Is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is a relatively simple concept. It means that our brain is capable of change across our lifespan. This change can be either positive or negative. As a result of our experiences, if we direct them in a positive direction we can actually enhance our brain functioning. What is also now known is that we have the capability to grow new neurons and can also increase dendrites (the branches of our neurons) which makes for more efficient transmissions. So we can do a lot of things in our life that will enhance the functioning of our brain. This is critical for not only for learning but our ability to relate to the world. It also helps improve our overall feeling of well being.

The fact that we can change our brain through our activities and behaviour is incredibly positive.

What This Means For The Aging Brain

There are incredible opportunities for the aging brain. As long as we are alive, we can harness the concept of neuroplasticity.

Many years ago, there was a belief that around the age of 12, the window of opportunity for neuroplasticity closed and the brain that you had at that point was the brain you would have for the rest of your life. We now know this is not the case.

Barbara has worked with people into their eighties and has seen the same degree of neuroplasticity in an eighty year old as she has seen in a twelve year old. This is incredibly promising and optimistic and shows there is always hope. Even for people experiencing some cognitive decline (for example where did you leave your keys or what was I supposed to get at the grocery store), we can change this. Through actually keeping the brain active and stimulated we can enhance the brain’s functioning.

What Type Of Activities Should We Do As We Age To Help Our Brain Health?

Barbara suggests the first thing we should do is find something we enjoy. In order to sustain the activity it should be something that brings us joy or pleasure.

The first principle to embrace is to establish active, sustained engagement. We need to pick an activity that we will do over a sustained period of time. Similar to exercise, we need to sustain it for a period of time in order to see any improvement. Barbara suggests that 20 minutes a day is a good to target.

The second principle is to ensure that the activity challenges us. It has to be something that we can calibrate and increase the challenge over time. Again, similar to exercise in order to see and sustain results we need to increase the difficulty over time. We don’t want to start where it’s either too hard or too easy. We want to start where there is some strain but it’s still attainable. Basically we’re exercising our brain. Over time as the activity becomes easier, we need to then up the level of difficulty and level of complexity.

This will drive positive neuroplastic change.

What Activities Should We Do?

Learning a new language, learning how to dance, basically anything that causes us to have to use our brain to think are all things we can do. Again, it needs to be sustained for at least twenty minutes a day and also have the ability to allow us to increase difficulty and strain over time.

Sleep is another factor that is being found to be absolutely critical to our brain function. There is much research on the negative impact that sleep deprivation has on our brain as sleep is critical for memory consolidation.

Exercise. There is a saying “what is good for your heart is good for your brain” because it pumps more blood to our brain. Also through exercise there we can generate a repair mechanism for the brain as well.

Be sure to also reduce stress. The impact of stress on the brain is significant. Stress generates cortisol which can be considered an acid bath for the brain which is not good.

Practice gratitude, meditation, social connection – all of these things offer neuro protective factors.

Consider these activities like doing cross fit for your brain. But remember it doesn’t have to be complicated. Find things that you enjoy and then build these elements into your life. It can actually be quite simple.

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If you are interested in learning more about Barbara’s own personal journey and how she developed her passion and commitment to her profession, watch her TedTalk – it is truly inspiring!

 

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Susan Williams is the Founder of Booming Encore. Being a Boomer herself, Susan loves to discover and share ways to live life to the fullest. She shares her experiences, observations and opinions on living life after 50 and tries to embrace Booming Encore's philosophy of making sure every day matters.