Truths and Myths About Your Aging Brain

Published In Mental Health & Well-Being

September 8th, 2017

“Right now, you’ve got neurons in your brain that have ‘Vacancy’ signs on them,” the Institute on Aging’s Patrick Arbore recently told a capacity crowd gathered to hear his pronouncements about brain health. The group of mostly older attendees was lured to the talk, fittingly held in San Francisco, by its title: “The Summer of Love and Your Aging Brain.”

Some confessed they were concerned that their indulgences during that summer a half-century ago, fun while they lasted, might have done irreparable harm to the three-pound organ in their heads. Others insisted they just wanted to keep themselves as healthy and active as possible as they aged. A few admitted they were motivated to attend for tips on how to avoid the growing ranks of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

All We Need Is Love?

Arbore, who heads the Center for Elderly Suicide Prevention and Grief-Related Services, talked first about the detrimental effects that loneliness has on the brain, especially for older people who, he says, are most prone to live in the “poverty of isolation.”

One of the proven antidotes to isolation is profoundly connecting to other people — commonly called love.

In her groundbreaking book Why We Love, anthropologist Helen Fisher chronicles surveys and behavioral research showing dramatic surges in the brains of those in the throes of romantic love. While those throes are mostly pleasurable, they often include things less lovable: racing hearts, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of anxiety.

“One of the joys of getting older is that we don’t have to go through that again,” Arbore joked, then quickly recovered: “Honestly, I don’t think age is a criteria to give or receive love. All of us can do it.”

That’s another joy about finding or keeping love in later life: Aging brains don’t lose the capacity to be flooded with dopamine, the “feel-good neurotransmitter” that love often sparks.

Saved By the Music

And there’s no shortage of research (watch video below) and reality showing that playing or even listening to your favorite music causes long-lasting effects on the brain similar to being in love. Familiar notes and tunes increase a feeling of connection.

Brain scans reveal that listening to favorite music also causes the brain to release dopamine during the most exciting moments of a piece — and even in anticipation of those moments, such as the often-awaited drum solo in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (below) released by the band Iron Butterfly that thrilled the brains of so many listeners right around the time of the Summer of Love.

That connection and euphoria was powerfully captured in Alive Inside — a film chronicling the heartening reawakenings experienced by nursing home residents whose memory loss was combated by listening to music. The film also recorded the disheartening difficulties in getting the healthcare industry to accept the reality of the power of music, dismissed by some nursing home employees as “too difficult to administer.”

Debunking the Myths

Love and music aside, many myths endure about the aging brain, which actually retains its capacity to change over the years due to its plasticity.

  • Myth 1: Crossword puzzles boost brain power.

Sobering news for rabid fans of Acrostics, Suduko, Wordfinds, and crossword puzzles: They may be engaging, but doing repetitive exercises doesn’t do a thing to preserve the brawn of your brain. What does work is learning something new, which causes brain gains by forging new neural connections.

  • Myth 2: You can’t stop Alzheimer’s disease.

While it remains frustratingly true that there is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s, research shows that leading a healthy life — eating well, reducing stress, staying engaged with others, and stimulating your brain with new activities — can effectively slow the disease.

  • Myth 3: Brain games make you smarter.

We used to see quite a few of them — brain games and even brain game parlors with ads touting their ability to build mind muscle. But now we don’t, as research shows such games do little or nothing to increase cognitive abilities. “Brain games are no replacement for human contact,” says the Institute on Aging’s Arbore. He urges instead the time-tested technique of spending time talking with other people.

  • Myth 4: Your mind gets worse with age.

In fact, it doesn’t get worse; it gets richer. Scientists dub it “crystallized intelligence” — the fact that skills, knowledge, and experience accumulated over a lifetime actually enable the fibers of the brain to network together more easily and efficiently.

A real benefit of adding more years is adding context to life. Skills learned earlier and practiced — from playing the stock market to playing a musical instrument — often become more nuanced and refined with time and experience.

  • Myth 5: Old age should be a time of relaxation.

Relaxing is good, but like most good things, should be done in moderation. What’s more beneficial in helping to retain cognitive capacities as we age is to keep pursuing a purpose in life and staying as active as possible. In fact, impaired circulation — preventable in many cases through regular exercise — contributes to a majority of dementia diagnosed.

  • Myth 6: Older people don’t experience stress.

Stress is simply part of life, but failing to manage it well takes a toll on mind and body and can actually endanger the hippocampus: the part of the brain needed to structure memories. People age 60 and older are often more likely to internalize stress than their younger cohorts, which can often lead to anxiety and depression.

  • Myth 7: Older people cannot learn new things.

While this popular adage may be true for old dogs, it’s a self-defeating thought for people — and one that makes Arbore nearly apoplectic. “As older people, what’s so crucial for us is that we try new things — and try them again if we don’t succeed,” he says. “Get rid of the sentence ‘I can’t learn it’ and replace it with ‘I can learn it, but it may take me a while.’”

  • Myth 8: Most older people don’t need to watch what they eat.

Another annoying adage — “You are what you eat” — may simply ring true at any age. Vascular and brain health are closely tied to diet. While the results of studies involving diet tend to shift confusingly with the latest trends, the most current research shows that “Mediterranean-style diets” — low in sweets and meats and high in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts — can reduce the risk of dementia by as much as 53 percent.

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