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Boomer Bytes #47: Using Our Brains: Or Losing Them

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Using Our Brains: Or Losing Them

By Steve Canipe

Dec. 4, 2014. Have you heard the adage “use it or lose it?” I did a quick online search of the phrase and there were well over 750 thousand hits returned. So what exactly does this mean with regards to brain functioning?


Melissa Healy, reporting in the Los Angeles Times on research originally published in the journal Neurology, noted several interesting facts about using our brains and keeping them at a good level of functioning. Ms. Healy reports that in a study of a large group of Scottish septuagenarians, those who worked in jobs that were intellectually demanding had better memories than those not working in such jobs. These jobs required problem-solving, focused work, a large amount of personal interaction, and flexibility dealing with situations.

Researchers were able to demonstrate this increased level of function after accounting for early childhood differences in intelligence and other childhood characteristics including education. The researchers found not only did the level of general intelligence hold up well; there was an increased speed in processing stimuli. Memory and intelligence were consistently higher for those working in those intellectually stimulating jobs.

One facet of the study was that the Scottish study was a longitudinal one that began in 1936. All the individuals had been IQ tested when they were 11 years old thus giving a baseline. The researchers were able to track down over one thousand 70 year olds. They were about evenly divided between men and women (534/532 respectively).

When the latest battery of tests were administered virtually all of the participants were now retired. Work histories were taken using a coding system developed in the 1970s in the United States. There were two not surprising observations reported in the article

  1. “… whereas a child with more modest cognitive abilities has grown up and been drawn into complex work, he or she is more likely to become an older adult with better-than-usual mental function.
  2. …to the extent that bright children are funneled into menial occupations, they’re likely to lose some of the mental horsepower they started out with.” (http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-smart-work-preserves-brainpower-aging-20141119-story.html ¶8)

Other researchers have found that it is not just intellectual activity that keeps the brain functioning well. A LA Times article from 1999 reported on this research from articles in Nature Neuroscience from work done at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Princeton University. Physical exercise is also important in keeping the brain active. Actually this makes sense since increased activity through exercise sends more blood to the brain and probably inhibits the buildup of plaque on the neural cells and pathways. One scientist, Fred H. Gage, opined that “…we know now that human brains also make new cells, it just might be that running or other vigorous exercise stimulates brain cell production in people as well.”

Whatever the reason it is a good thing to keep in mind as we Boomers age. The research points out two main features:

  1. Make sure to do intellectually challenging work even into our non-working years
  2. Keep physically active, vigorous walking might be enough

There is so much new knowledge coming out every day that those of us in the Boomer years are on the cusp of some remarkable breakthroughs. A whole series of articles related to brains can be found on the site from the Baltimore Sun.

It isn’t just the brain that fits the mantra “use it or lose it.” It applies to a whole series of activities – involving cognitive and well as motor functions. How many times do you see even young Boomers who have become sedentary?   I don’t doubt that some of us have pains related to aging – some from arthritis and other skeletomuscular issues. These are the hardest to deal with, I believe. But some folks find a way to be active regardless. It may mean that the level of activity is less but there is still activity.

My wife and I walk at the Wellness Center in Boone, on average 5 days a week, when we are in Boone. We do an hour of rather vigorous walking; Monday through Friday. I know we need to do more strengthening work as well. My wife has taken to walking with arm weights and this is pretty good for her. During our hour, we cover between 3.5 and 4 miles. Not great but not too bad either.

Some of our good health is due to exercise and other parts are probably due to our good genes. Maybe some is due to luck. I know that my doctor was always amazed that as of last year at 68, I had never had an operation. He was happy when toward the end of my 67th year I had cataract surgery – so now I’ve had two operations – one in each eye (20/20 in each now by the way).

Sharon and I have been very blessed to be able to travel. During our travels we are often with other older people, like us. I have taken to observing how well they maneuver in various settings. Some do fine in situations where there are flat sidewalks or pavement. Some do OK when there are various low obstacles and rough and/or rocky footing. Some do well if they can use a walking stick or cane.

What has struck me in our travels is that everyone is interested in learning and seeing new and different things. I must say that we often travel with Road Scholar or Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) and their specific objective is toward learning and experiencing. I definitely can recommend either of them. They each will pair single travelers if one is traveling alone.

Persevering is what it is all about. On our first trip to Alaska, there was a gentleman from eastern North Carolina. We were really young back then – not even out of our 40s!! He had really bad arthritis. He was not able to walk particularly well. We were traveling on a chartered bus with about 20 other folks. Often, depending on the activity, he would remain on the bus and not walk to the gold mine site or to the glacier. One of our fellow travelers asked him why he came when he could not participate. His answer struck me as so poignant. He said “Well, I could be sitting on my porch and be hurting; or I can be here and see what I can see and be hurting.”

His point was that he was going to hurt regardless of where he was – his choice was to hurt where he could see things he had never seen, but wanted to see. He could not see everything but he could see a lot from the seat in the motor coach!! If I ever get to where I cannot do all the movements I now can (and I expect that to happen if I am lucky enough to live a long life), I want to have that attitude!!

My advice to my fellow Boomers is to be active in both mind and body. Do things that force you outside your comfort zone. Do Sudoku, crosswords, learn a new language, work on logic puzzles to exercise your mind, learn a new electronic game or a new board game—keep your mind engaged—remember the research I mentioned at the beginning of this article.

Do the same with your body. If you can walk – then do it. Don’t overdo it – start small and then build up. If you have medical issues, discuss physical exercise with your doctor to be sure you will not do damage. Swimming is a minimal joint damaging exercise. The Wellness Center has a great pool and is available for use at a reasonable cost or, if you have the Silver Sneakers card for free.

I still work full time at an online university, Walden University. I no longer teach regular courses but do work with doctoral students. Mostly I am a problem solver dealing with various administrative issues like student issues, curriculum planning, and various other administrative issues. It is safe to say that no two days in a week are exactly the same. I am not building widgets but am dealing with personal and personnel issues – and they are definitely requiring innovative solutions. My wife is pursuing a different path to keep her brain active – she is writing novels. Two (Earthcrack and Sandrift) novels are currently available on Amazon and a third (Fogbound) to come out before the end of the year.

What are you doing to keep your brain active – hobbies like gardening, photography, woodworking, knitting; scrapbooking, writing, etc. that require thought? Would love to hear how you are keeping your brain and body active. Share below or send an email to boomerbytes@yahoo.com.