Brain Power provides many tools and techniques to prevent mental deterioration as we physically age. All couched in the context that our mental attitude about aging greatly shapes our physical experience of aging. That opening our mind to what’s possible rather than presuming impossibilities can lead to longer life, better health, and a more resilient brain.
Gelb cites the groundbreaking research of Ellen Langer, reported in her book Counterclockwise. [September 2009 e-newsletter on Healthy Aging] Two groups of elderly men, being cared for by relatives, spent a weeklong retreat at a secluded monastery in New Hampshire. The first group of men reminisced about their lives twenty years earlier in 1959. At the end of the week they reported they had had a pleasant week and showed some improvement in their mental and physical functioning from pre-to-post tests.
The second groups was instructed to return as completely as possible in their minds to 1959, as though living again at a time when their brains and bodies were younger. At dinner they debated about the threat of communism and the need for bomb shelters. They discussed the “recent” books of the day, Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. They watched “newly released” movies like Ben-Hur and Some Like It Hot. They listened to current pop stars like Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole on the phonograph After one week of living as though they were twenty years younger, the men showed dramatic improvements in memory, flexibility, vision, hearing, appetite and general well-being. Previously dependent on relatives for care, the men began serving their own meals, cleaning up afterwards, initiating their own social activities. Some men had even begun playing touch football.
The discovery of the brain’s innate neuroplasticity – that the brain can grow new neurons and new connections among neurons – lifelong – means that we really can choose to expand and grow our brains, lifelong.
Learning a new skill can change hundreds of millions of cortical connections.
Michael Merzenich, neuroscientist
The human brain is astonishingly adaptable and flexible. When we know – and practice – the right tools and techniques, we can continue to expand our capacities to process information, improve our memory, think creatively, solves problems and learn new skills as long as we require our brains to do so.
The brain has an almost boundless capacity for reshaping itself over the years, for adapting, for expanding its power, while accumulating knowledge and recording experiences. Modern neuroscience tells us that the aging brain is no longer the declining brain, but rather a learning organ whose limits are still unexplored.
– Marco Iacoboni, M.D. Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, UCLA
You may have a great fear of Alzheimer’s, as I do having cared for my father as he lost memory and function to that disease. I was relieved to learn in Brain Power that
…the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and to possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness are associated with a substantially reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and a less rapid rate of cognitive decline in older age.
– Patricia Boyle, PhD, Rush University Medical Center, Chicago
Research is now showing that many of the practices of mind and heart we explore frequently in these newsletters – gratitude, humor, forgiveness, optimistic expectations – help people live on average 7-9 years longer that people who don’t, with greatly enhanced life satisfaction and well-being.
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Aging as a Spiritual Practice is the yin to Brain Power’s yang, though, as in the Taoist symbol of yin-yang, the seed of one can be found in the other.
Richmond uses contemplative reflections to help us engage skillfully with the deepest truth of life – Everything changes – so that we can re-frame change as possibilities to experience wisdom, open-heartedness and inner freedom as we age. How to find the gift of each moment and the new possibilities with each breath, even when facing the disruption of unwanted changes.
Whether we live to a vigorous old age lies not so much in our stars or in our genes but in ourselves.
– George Vaillant
With bows to the importance of physical exercise and diet, Richmond focuses more on using the extended life span to maintain healthy relationships, serve others, explore our own deeper nature in Nature, and deepen our spiritual practice.
Richmond identifies 4 stages of coping with any change and offers many moving stories of people applying them to aging:
1. Lightning Strikes – a life-threatening diagnosis for ourselves or someone close to us; hearing of the death of a friend we went to college with. We experience a “Wake up! Pay attention!”
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
– Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, New and Selected Poems
2. Coming to terms – accepting that life is changing; has changed; there’s no going back.
3. Adaptation – adjust; remain flexible; enjoy everything you can. This change is not just worry and regret; it’s also new possibilities.
4. Appreciation – no matter what we’re facing, we’re alive to face it. When we wake up to the preciousness of every moment and the aliveness of every breath, we take nothing for granted. We savor all the possibilities life is offering in this moment, and the possibility of new moments.
Give me these hills and the friends I love. I ask no other heaven.
– inscription on bench on hiking trail on Mt. Tamalpais, CA
Richmond offers contemplative reflections to encourage several practices that help us grow wiser as we grow older, among them:
1. Come into the present moment
Step off the treadmill of horizontal time, as though your life is moving along the conveyor belt of a timeline, and drop into the depth of vertical time – this moment, here and now – and experience the infinity and eternity of it, free of concern, worry, regret. Richmond uses the example you may have had in childhood of lying back on the grass on a summer day, looking up at the shape-shifting clouds – everything changes, but in that moment you can experience the spacious timelessness of “nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be.”
(Research shows that spending time in the vertical affects how much time we can expect in the horizontal. People who meditate, pray, or attend religious services at least once a week also live on the average 7 years longer than folks who don’t. The suggested explanation is that even as our bodies age and become less reliable, relying on or having faith in something larger than ourselves, however that is experienced or named counterbalances physical diminishment with spiritual enrichment. Feeling held by something larger helps us let go of what we’re having to let go of.)
2. Shift to flexibility and optimism. Not a snap of the fingers, you say. The courage to cope with changing circumstances comes from changing how we relate to our circumstances. Many of the reflections in Aging as Spiritual Practice are meditations that open up our perspectives so that we can see new choices.
In Buddhism, what is known as beginner’s mind is a way to look at the world as if for the first time: with interest, enthusiasm, and engagement. This may be the optimal state of mind for a healthy brain.
– Louis Cozolino
You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.
– Pearl S. Buck
Seeing our way through difficulties and challenges does require our brain to grow.
Resilience in the face of adversity is the most distinguishing characteristic of those who age gracefully and adapt well. And resilience is a function of optimism.
– Michael Gelb
Richmond cites research similar to Gelb’s citations demonstrating that cultivating positive approaches to life experience like gratitude, generosity, loving kindness connects us to a larger sense of our world and fosters a shift to resilience and optimism that help people live longer and with more well-being.
3. Embrace the role of elderhood
We can move beyond learning from our elders as role models (which Gelb heartily recommends) to becoming role models of the wisdom, dignity, and integrity of elderhood ourselves. We move into Erik Erikson’s final stage of development: integrity vs. despair. We look back on life with feelings of integrity, contentment and fulfillment, having led a meaningful life and made valuable contributions to society. If, in this stage, we lean toward a sense of failure and despair, we may fear death as we struggle to find a purpose in our lives, wondering “What was the point? Was it worth it?” Practices offered in both books help us develop our lives in the direction of integration, integrity, and wisdom. We come to understand our place in the world, our contribution to it, and are willing to give back or pay forward to the next generations.
The old should be explorers, be curious, risk transgression, explore oldness itself.
– T.S. Elioty
None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.
– Henry David Thoreau
This emerging contentment and altruism also keeps us connected to the larger whole.
Social interactions and neural plasticity are synergistic. Isolation, and lack of challenge and stimulation, are the enemies of neuroplastic processes and brain health. It is clear why elders who become isolated are more likely to lose cognitive functions. On the other hand, positive social support is associated with better mental health, cardiovascular health, immunological functioning, and cognitive performance in older adults. Those that remain connected and needed are far more likely to remain vital and alive.
– Louis Cozolino, PhD, The Healthy Aging Brain: Sustaining Attachment, Attaining Wisdom