As promised last week, here are some final thoughts on research that proves your brain can continue to grow and change for the better – at any age – as long as you continue to challenge it.
At Columbia University, Dr. Yaakov Stern, a clinical neuropsychologist found that people who had less than an eighth-grade education had twice the risk of getting Alzheimer’s as those who went beyond the eighth grade. And when people with low education levels also worked at mentally un-stimulating occupations, they had three times the risk of becoming demented.
Charles Gilbert and other researchers at Rockefeller University discovered that the brain can repair itself and construct memory, and in so doing can change thought-patterns and learn new skills. Both repair and memory depend on stimulation or mental activity, something that as a society we have tended to ignore. Dr. Gilbert says, “We need to recognize the importance of challenging our minds as a vital component of health, and of mental health.”
What happens to people’s intellectual abilities as they age was the subject of the Seattle Longitudinal Study started in 1956 by K. Warner Schaie. Dr. Schaie, the director of the Gerontology Center at Pennsylvania State University, studied more than 5,000 people aged twenty to ninety and older. He found that intellectual ability varies widely, but as he said,
“There are very few toddling, senile millionaires. It takes education and resources to make and keep that kind of money. Couch potatoes, on the other hand, are the quickest to slip into intellectual limbo. The danger starts when people retire, decide to take things easy and say they don’t have to keep up with the world anymore.”
Dr. Schaie found that in mental testing, bridge players did very well while bingo players did not. Crossword puzzle workers did better on verbal skills, and jigsaw puzzle players tend to maintain their spatial skills. There are many ways to exercise the brain, but you have to do something. “Inactive people tend to show the most decline. The people who are almost too busy to be studied are the ones who do very well.”
Lastly, according to Michael Merzenich, a pioneering neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco, science is finally awakening to the fact that the brain reorganizes itself during learning. “It’s something that people don’t realize. They don’t think about the power that they have within themselves to change their brains.”
These studies point out the value of incorporating later-life learning into our lives. And age is not a barrier. Albert Einstein, Claude Monet, Arturo Toscaninni, Claude Pepper, Hume Cronyn and Pablo Casals, among others were all productive and vibrant well into old age.
Studies aside, these individuals certainly prove that creativity does not end at a certain age. We now know, thanks to the new research, that creativity can grow and thrive, well into our later years.
In the words of Dr. Paul Nussbaum, director of the Aging Research and Education Center in Pittsburgh, PA, “…every time your heart beats, 25% of that blood goes right to the brain. But while exercise is critical, it may be education that is more important. In the 21st century, education and information may become for the brain what exercise is for the heart.”
Learning in later life is certainly too valuable to ignore!
For more information on Learning Later, Living Greater visit http://www.learninglater.com/ You can purchase Learning Later, Living Greater at http://www.amazon.com/
Till Next Time…
Nancy Merz Nordstrom is Director of the Lifelong Learning Department at Computer School for Seniors (http://www.cs4seniors.com/)