As we age, our bodies change in function and appearance. Our bones become less dense, muscle strength tends to decrease, and joints become tighter and stiffer. With these changes, older adults become more susceptible to falling and may experience hearing and vision loss.
We can replace or enhance a few things but not everything. However, while we once thought that brain function was irreplaceable, advancements in science have taught us that we can create new brain connections as we age.
The impact of imaging on the study of brain development
Before brain imaging was available, conventional wisdom held that brain cells were lost during the aging process and never returned. The reality is that new brain connections can be created. New pathways in the brain can grow, which was previously thought to be unheard of.
“When you’re younger, it’s obviously easier to learn a foreign language or a musical instrument,” says Mary Heineke, a marriage and family therapist with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “We used to have the impression that older adults couldn’t learn or retain new information. It's encouraging that research shows as we get older, the brain can keep growing when we learn and experience new things.”
Creating new brain connections
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. It allows the nerve cells in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and adjust their activities to new situations or changes in their environment.
“I describe neural pathways as the paths you develop over time due to constant use,” says Heineke. “You can always forge a new path; you're just going to have to beat down a few more things to go another way. We literally can rewire the brain by making behavioral changes.”
While Heineke admits that brain cognition decreases as we get older, it does not always need to be the case. We can stimulate cognition by doing puzzles, playing video games or learning a musical instrument.
‘Super agers’ debunk the myth of brain loss
A group within a retirement community participated in a medical study to explore the reasons for longevity and why some older adults may be considered “super agers.” A super ager is someone in their 80s or older who has cognitive function that is comparable to that of an average middle-aged person.
Findings from the study conclude that regular activity, social connections and having a purpose in life can contribute to preventing or reversing cognitive decline. Surprisingly, alcohol and tobacco use did not seem to diminish brain function for the study group.
“You would have thought that people who lived longer didn't drink, but actually some did drink; it was just no more than two drinks a day,” explains Heineke. “And there are similar results from people who smoke a lot but may live longer because of the activities they do. Exercise and healthy eating are things we know play a big part in keeping these super agers going.”
Myths about brain development, resiliency and recovery
Another myth of aging is that we are unable to overcome the effects of trauma because our brains cannot develop new ways of thinking. This misconception comes not from the brain, but rather from telling ourselves we cannot take on new challenges.
“There are people who experience great loss in their life, but they've been able to develop a purpose after that,” says Heineke. “Building new neural pathways are a big part of being able to accept things that happened to us. We can start to move forward by concentrating on the things that we can do to improve our brain health.”
Tips for filling your brain reservoir
Heineke shares the following tips to help improve brain function and be more resilient:
Exercise regularly. Research shows people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in mental function.
Eat a healthy diet. The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet can help reduce cognitive decline, according to a research study by Rush University Medical Center.
Get plenty of sleep. Getting 7 to 8 consecutive hours of sleep per night provides the brain the time it needs to consolidate and store memories effectively.
Stay mentally stimulated. Consider taking a class, joining a book club, playing games or learning something new, such as how to play an instrument or speak a new language.
Stay socially involved. Remain connected with others, as social interaction helps ward off depression and stress, both linked to memory loss.
Minimize stress. Learn how to cope with anxiety or tension, as hormones secreted when people are under stress have a stronger effect on older brains.