“I’m getting so old, my memory is failing. I can’t remember names or even what I had for breakfast this morning. I MUST be getting Alzheimer’s!” If you’ve ever felt this way, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. Many older adults fear developing some form of dementia and panic at the first sign of forgetfulness. There are a multitude of misconceptions regarding the aging brain, and at the top of that list is that memory loss must equal dementia. In most cases, the simple decline in brain function is a result of normal cognitive impairment that happens with the aging brain. Cells shrink, neurons decay, plaques build over time, and the myelin sheath that helps line neural pathways deteriorates. The result of these normal aging effects is that our brains lose a great deal of efficiency. Just like our muscles atrophy over time causing weakness, our brain, too, loses much of its functionality due to the aging process.
But the good news is plentiful. There is significant research that suggests that you can not only delay the onset of cognitive impairment, but also prevent it altogether and, in some cases, even reverse those effects. A multidimensional approach is required that includes brain-healthy foods such as blueberries, deep-water fish, and walnuts. It should involve regular bouts of exercise, stress-relieving endeavors, regular amounts of socialization, and intellectual stimulation that challenges various parts of the brain. But perhaps the most important ingredient in this approach should involve something called neuroplasticity. Initially researched as a cure to help stroke patients recover brain functionality, neuroplasticity, in short, refers to the brain’s ability to rewire and grow new neurons. This is tremendous news as it pertains to older adults, because the brain is considered plastic, regardless of age. Even if you are 99 years old, your brain can continue to develop new neural pathways with proper training. The key lies in learning new skills, breaking routines, and, in general, breaking free of what is referred to as “autopilot mode.” A great example of autopilot mode is brushing your teeth. Your brain wired itself decades ago to be able to complete this task without thought. So, now, you brush your teeth with zero effort, and those neural pathways attached to that skill deteriorate over time. Think about it as a well-traveled path in the woods. Well, what would happen if you tried brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand? Your brain will have to rewire itself to complete this task efficiently. You may make a mess the first few times you attempt it, but your brain will develop new pathways to learn this new skill. Relating to our prior analogy, we’re treading a new path to the same destination in the woods.
That is just a small example of neuroplasticity. The larger the scale of your new skill, the larger the impact it will have on your brain. Learn a new language, learn how to play an instrument, and perhaps the best thing you can do for your brain … learn to dance! Learning new dance moves involves many of the other dimensions we referenced. It’s physical, social, provides stress release, and learning the steps is a perfect example of neuroplasticity!
We’ll never have the perfect body or mind that we had at 25, but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to feebleness or forgetfulness. Make the proper changes in your daily life, and you can retain a great portion of your physical and mental acuity! Good luck!