Staying Sharp – Learning As We Age

By 7  am On

We Can Keep Learning


“Overthinking is the biggest cause of unhappiness. Keep your mind occupied. Keep your mind off things that don’t help you. Be optimistic.”

I ran across this quote recently and it really rang true for me. I had been obsessing about a situation that I didn’t have any control over, and a lightbulb in my brain went on. It was a relief to allow myself to let go of my overthinking and focus on something else that would better serve me in a positive way.

As we age, it’s common to worry about the what ifs: what might or could happen as far as our health, our finances, our loved ones. How will I cope? Will I have enough money? Will I get sick? If we overthink and worry about these issues we can actually create so much stress that our stress from overthinking causes more harm than what we are worried about. Not to mention we lose out on enjoying the present moment!

The NRTA, AARP’s Educator Community, published a booklet entitled, “Staying Sharp – Learning as We Age.” The booklet outlines what happens to our brain as we age, as well as dispels misinformation and provides tips for staying focused on the positive. Excerpted below are the following sections: Tenets of Successful Aging, Minding Your Memory, Brain-Aging Myths You Can Forget, and Think Positive.

Tenets of Successful Brain Aging

We all know people who stay sharp as a tack well into old age, or who seem to blossom creatively in the second half of their lives. A large and growing collection of scientific research focuses on determining what is different about people who tend to age suc- cessfully—that is, with minimal declines in cognition and memory. It turns out that they seem to share certain characteristics, described below, which may contribute to keeping them mentally sharp.

Mental exercise, especially learning new things or pursuing activities that are intellectually stimulating, may strengthen brain-cell networks and help preserve mental functions.

Longer formal education is associated with mental sharpness among older people, possibly because continued learning cre- ates a neural reserve of denser, stronger nerve-cell connections that increase the brain’s ability to compensate for age-related changes in neural structure and function. Better-educated people also may tend to lead brain-healthier lifestyles in general.

Self-efficacy, the sense that we exert some control or influence over our lives and the lives of others—that what we do makes a difference—seems to prevent cognitive decline. The reasons are not entirely clear, but some experts believe that self-efficacy may be related to a greater resilience to stress.

Social interaction—staying socially active and regularly engaging with family and friends—is an important predictor of healthy brain aging; and the flip side, social isolation, is associated with greater cognitive decline and other health problems. How social interac- tion benefits the brain is not well understood; one theory is that a strong social network may facilitate new learning and help people better manage stress. People who are socially engaged are also likely to be more active, both mentally and physically, which may help explain the apparent brain benefits.

Minding Your Memory

Based on what brain science tells us about how memory changes with age, the following simple strategies should help us improve our ability to remember things when we need to.

Pay attention: Engage your brain and actively attend to what you’re trying to learn.

Stay focused: Concentrate on what you’re doing and reduce dis- tractions or interruptions.

Repeat it: Repetition increases the strength of the relevant connec- tions in your brain.

Write it down: Writing down important things serves two pur- poses: It constitutes another way to repeat the information, and it provides a visual reminder.

Visualize it: Creating a visual image of what you’re trying to remember can reinforce brain connections, essentially giving your brain another way to access the information.

Make associations: Relate new information to things you already know. By doing so, you’re using existing synaptic connections to learn something new. This strategy can also be useful when trying to remember names. At a dinner party, for example, you might associate “Pam” with “red dress,” “lawyer,” “friend of Bill,” “drinking red wine,” or
the like.

Stay organized: Keep things you use regularly in the same place, and always return them to their place. Put keys on a hook by the door and your wallet in a basket on your dresser, for example.

Plan and prioritize: Because multitasking may
be more difficult, planning our time and prioritizing our activities becomes more critical. This may mean that some things simply have to wait. Recognize that doing it all may not be realistic, and let yourself off the hook. This can go a long way toward reducing stress and regaining control over your time and your life.

Brain-Aging Myths You Can Forget

You can’t change your brain. Your brain is constantly changing in response to your experiences, and it retains this fundamental plasticity well into old age. Everything we do and think about is reflected in patterns of activation in our brain. Scientists can see these patterns in brain-imaging scans that show which parts of the brain are active during specific tasks. Changing our thinking or changing the way we behave induces corresponding changes in the brain systems involved. For example, psychological thera- pies that teach people to alter negative patterns of thought and behavior can be effective in treating some mental disorders. Brain- imaging studies provide evidence that brain pathways actually change as a result of successful therapy.

We lose thousands of neurons every day. This persistent myth is based on early, flawed efforts to count the number of neurons in various brain regions. Scientists now know that the brain actually loses relatively few neurons with age. Loss that does occur tends to be concentrated in certain regions deep in the brain, including some that supply important neurotransmitters to other brain areas.

The brain doesn’t make new cells. This was the prevailing dogma for generations of neuroscientists, but research in the past few years has shot it down. Certain areas of the brain, including the hippocampus and the olfactory bulb (the scent-processing center), regularly generate new neurons, many of which go on to become fully functioning players in brain circuits. This is a hot area of neuroscience, and new insights are emerging rapidly.

Memory decline is inevitable as we age. Plenty of people reach very old age still as sharp as ever. Genes clearly are involved in this “successful aging,” but how we live our lives on a day-to-day basis is also critical—and something we can control. Physical and mental activity, diet, social connections, stress management, worldview, and self-image are all important factors.

Think Positive

Keeping a positive outlook on life may be one of the most important things we can do to keep our brains healthy and ready for learning. How we view ourselves, how we perceive the world around us, and how we interact with others can have profound effects on our overall well-being and on our brains. These are things that are completely within our control. No matter what challenges we face, we can choose to start each day by looking at the glass as half full rather than half empty. Feeling good about ourselves and having a sense of self-worth and effectiveness in our lives—attributes scientists sometimes call self-efficacy— are pillars of successful aging, according to the results of large studies that have chronicled lifestyle factors of people who stay mentally sharp into old age. Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., a Dana Alliance member and neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University who led one of the first and most important of these studies, defines self-efficacy as an ability to adapt to life’s challenges, to maintain a degree of control over our lives, and to feel as if we are contributing to our families and society.

Cathy Lorberbaum
Director of Client Services
Assisting Hands Home Care Potomac