Don Ardell’s tips for aging well are from his book Aging Beyond Belief, 69 tips for REAL Wellness. REAL wellness stands for Reason, Exuberance And Liberty. Don says you can’t buy pills or treatments for REAL wellness−it’s a mindset and lifestyle you control. It’s never to early to let Reason, Exuberance and Liberty be your guide…these tips are for folks of any age. Enjoy.
Understanding the Aging Brain
Learn as much as you can about your own CPU
Do you know what “central processing unit” (CPU) I’m talking about? I mean the one in your head containing 100 billion neurons, the one able to make about 1,000 trillion interconnections or so, according to R. Grant Steen in The Evolving Brain (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2007). Your brain, neurophysiologist Steen suggests, is “arguably the most complex object in the universe.”
The more you learn about consciousness and unconsciousness, learning, memory, the role of genes, motivation, aggression and even your brain’s evolution, the more you will look after it. That is, give it new data, use it wisely and take good care of the rest of the organism to which it is attached.
All this attention to the brain takes on added signiﬁcance as the years accrue on the old CPU. The CPUs in computers can be replaced, but the one in your skull has to be upgraded, regularly if not automatically. There’s work involved, which is often the case when worthwhile returns are at issue. It’s just one more “cross to bear” (I prefer “responsibility to assume”) associated with “senior-hood.” While it tempting to conclude that there is not much (good) to be said for getting older, consider this before getting discouraged:
- We’re wiser than we were as youths.
- We have more money.
- We’re not as obsessed with sex. (This is a rumor.)
- We have time-tested ideas about the great existential questions. (They are most likely peculiar, twisted and irrational like mine, but if they help you make sense of things and live a good life, who cares?)
- We feel better about ourselves.
- We don’t have to support our children.
Besides, what’s there not to like about getting older given the fact that it’s not optional for anyone partial to breathing?
Of course, not all the assertions I listed apply in every case; in some codgers, none applies. I believe it was H. L. Mencken who said, “The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
New evidence has come to light suggesting that Mencken SHOULD have placed more trust in that familiar doctrine. It might, happily enough, be mostly true.
The latest research suggests that, with regard to older brains, like mine, there’s good news and bad news. The bad is not even that bad. Sure, old brains process information more slowly and less nimbly, so decisions (e.g., whether to drive left or right, stop or pull over) take longer. This is a bit of a problem when, for instance, a fast-moving Hummer is being managed by an old brain. But, the good news more than makes up for the pokey decision-making, provided you get where you’re going in one piece without leaving a trail of carnage behind you. It’s true that old brains are not as good at “multitasking” as they once were.
But, here’s the good news, according to Marilyn Albert of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where brain studies on aging have been getting a lot of attention. (See “Old Brains Don’t Work That Badly After All, Especially Trained Ones,” The Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2006; Page B1.) “Neurons don’t abandon ship.” Our brains retain the ingredients needed, IF we continue to use them and keep the rest of the body in tune. This brings to mind another old adage, “You can live to be a hundred if you give up all things that make you want to live to be a hundred.” This adage is wrong, according to the new ﬁndings. You, particularly your brain functions, will live longer if you DON’T give up the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.
Want to have a “ﬁt brain” with high-end neural circuitry when you’re old? Exercise—both your body AND your mind, daily—and don’t slack oﬀ in the later years.
Here is a summary of some of the latest ﬁndings:
- Even 70-year-olds produce new neurons as well as keeping the old ones needed for memory (hippocampus region) and planning and judgment (frontal cortex).
- While a rose is a rose is a rose, neurons are diﬀerent in diﬀerent older folks. A geezer who does not employ his/her brain with multiple new experiences, who does not stay physically ﬁt, socially engaged and active in complex environments will NOT have the neuron health of a wellness enthusiast who meets all these standards.
- The epicenter of the brain for purposes of studying neural well-being is the prefrontal cortex region. If your neurons here are “ﬁring on all cylinders,” so to speak, you will be able to pay attention to important stuﬀ and ignore the rest.
- One study found that old brains could be trained to act like young ones by mental exercises that require the use of both hemispheres of the brain. (Results were described in the February 2006 journal Neurobiology of Aging.) This demonstrated that the brains of older adults could stay “relatively ﬂexible, able to alter brain circuits in response to training.”
As Hans Selye once advised, there’s nothing wrong with retirement as long as it does not interfere with your work. By “work,” Selye meant keeping up the social and intellectual demands, avoiding routine and staying engaged in daily aﬀairs.
I like all these requirements. I’ll end this now in order to go oﬀ looking for some daily aﬀairs. There you have it—one more reason to live a wellness lifestyle with panache and verve.
Donald B. Ardell was a pioneer in the Wellness movement. He wrote High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs, and Disease, first published in 1976 by Rodale Press, with editions over the years by Bantam Books and Ten-Speed Press. Since then Don has written a dozen additional wellness books, including Die Healthy (with Grant Donovan), 14 Days to Wellness and most recently, Aging Beyond Belief.