Boomer Bytes #73: The Aging Brain-Really?

Published Friday, June 5, 2015 at 9:49 am

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.


The Aging Brain – Really? 

By Steve Canipe

Ok, so our whole body is getting old – our muscles, our eyesight, our hearing, our lungs – you get the picture. Why would our brain be any different?

We know that through exercise we can stay in better physical shape, keeping our muscles and joints limber. Using exercises regimes like yoga and Tai Chi we can help ourselves be more mobile. But is there something that we can do to help our minds stay in shape? Are there exercises we can do to help?

Canipe

Canipe

Several big players in the brain flexibility think we can exercise the brain – like Lumosity (www.lumosity.com/), Brain Metrix (www.brainmetrix.com/), and Brain HQ (http://www.brainhq.com/why-brainhq/about-the-brainhq-exercises). Some of these offer free tips and some charge for it. But the bottom line is that there does appear to be things that can be done to keep the brain more active and functioning well.

Dr. John E. Morley, director at St. Louis University’s Geriatric Medicine department wrote in the book The Science of Staying Young that word games help brain health but listed 11 other things you can do to keep your brain active. From his book, the following listing: 1) Test your recall. Make a list of anything — and then after an hour try to remember each item; 2) Learn to play a musical instrument; 3) Do math in your head; 4) Take a cooking class; 5) Learn a foreign language; 6) Create word pictures—like Wuzzles (http://goo.gl/DDao1M); 7) Visualize the spelling of a word in your head, then think of other words that begin the same; 8) Draw a map from memory: 9) Challenge your taste buds: 10) Refine your hand-eye abilities; 11) Learn a new sport.

Other researchers suggest that one should keep socially active and not become a recluse. Being around others seems to cause more cognitive functions to be maintained. Certainly doing the right things physically, like getting sufficient sleep, is a key as well. Dr. Dan Blazer a research professor emeritus at Duke University says that the jury is still out on the computer-based trainings mentioned above work or not.) They may be fun but not necessarily really help in functioning. (http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2276710 This research was reported in a popular press article by Lauran Neergaard of the Associated Press found in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/04/14/health/ap-us-med-aging-brain.html)

It has become possible to find lots of different recommendations for keeping the brain sharp. While the brain like almost like every other body part slows down with age, it also can draw on accumulated wisdom that is stored in the neurons. The slowdown is not like Alzheimer’s disease but a natural process. The neurons don’t die they just don’t function as well as they have during their younger years. Scientists at Duke University noted that there is a wide variability in the way individual brains age. It is these inevitable slowdowns that make Boomers and other older people more likely to fall for scams, have issues driving, or be less technologically savvy.

Scientists suggest that anyone noticing these slowdowns should be checked out simply to rule out medically treatable issues like cancer and other tumors as well as Alzheimer’s. There can be less serious issues that can affect mental sharpness including high blood pressure, diabetes, and even some medications—like anxiety or sleep drugs, antihistamines, or even drugs for bladder issues.

I suspect we have all experienced individuals who are no older than we are, who have lost their ability to process even relatively simple instructions. By the same token, we may have experienced other individuals who have seemingly been on top of their game well into their ninth decade of life. I certainly have personally noticed this in my family and wondered why? It is not just an example of people with more education. I don’t have scientific data but merely observational data. My Grandfather Farmer passed away at 95 and while he was relegated to using a cane and not being particularly mobile, was still functioning at a high cognitive level. He never completed elementary school due to having to work on the family farm. He was born in the late 19th century. He was an avid reader of the Bible but not much else. But he was aware of news of the world and could discuss it intelligently.

There has been some research on what is termed brain plasticity dealing with the ability to problem-solve (among other things). Some research seemed to show that playing the old game “Tetris” created better neural pathways and slowed and in some cases seemed to reverse some forms of dementia. (http://thebeautifulbrain.com/2011/06/the-neuroscience-of-tetris/) If you are not familiar with Tetris, (http://tetris.com/) it is a game widely available on many platforms, including smart phones and tablets, that is a special recognition game. Blocks of various sizes drop down and the idea is to build complete rows which will then “blink” out of existence. The player has the ability to rotate the various shapes to help build complete rows. There are free versions of the game which can be found by a quick Internet search.

With more brain research, we may find that there are definite do’s and don’ts that we need to follow to keep our brains active. But until the research settles out a bit, perhaps we should try several different things—like the computer brain games, working puzzles, being social, taking courses, etc. It is pretty obvious that none of the suggestions will hurt and some may help keep the old brain stem functioning well!

I suspect we have all experienced teachers who seemed way older than us but who had a youthful outlook on life. Maybe this is telling us something – by acting and being around young people maybe we do stay younger. In last week’s column I discussed livable communities for boomers. One of the things was not to be totally age segregated. I know that when I am around folks who do a lot of complaining about their aches and pains my own aches and pains seem worse. Being around folks who are more active makes me more active. Maybe this is due to my natural competitiveness or maybe there is something to be said for “group think” – act young and feel young!

It does not mean that people get to avoid the pain. But what it is, may be illustrated by the quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet “…Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?” I read this to be don’t let things control you, rather control them and by doing so end their power.

Once during a group bus trip to Alaska, many years and some decades ago, there was a fellow on the trip who suffered from arthritis, very bad arthritis. He could not always do what the rest of the group did and stayed on the bus. Someone asked why he didn’t just stay at home and rest? His comment was simple and bore out what Shakespeare noted; he said that he could stay at home, see nothing different, and hurt or he could be on the trip, hurting sometimes but seeing lots of new things. So his response was clear – he would not give in to the slings and arrows that had given him painful arthritis!!

What about you? Are your cognitive functions deteriorating too fast? Are you fearful that they will? Has anyone told you that you are being forgetful? These are questions that probably cause all boomers some concerns – especially for the oldest of us (like me). I know I try to stay active and mentally alert – I am still working full time, now for Walden University, an accredited fully online school. I have been working with them since I began part-time in 2002 when I was a mere 56!! I’ve had a number of positions with the University, where I have had to teach and also deal with the ambiguity of administrative functions. This does, I believe, help keep me young. At some point, I will retire from this work and then go on to what, I don’t currently know. Maybe write a book or convert all my columns into a book. Take some classes at the University or delve further into my photography hobby. I honestly don’t know at this point.

What about all you readers? What is your fear? What are you doing to stay mentally alert? Do you already see some decline? Please share your thoughts, fears, and plans with us all via the space below or send me a private email at boomerbytes@yahoo.com.

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