The Upside of an Ageing Brain

Many people express concerns about the potential impact of their ageing on their abilities, and especially their cognitive functioning. Our perceived mental abilities can be an important aspect of our sense of identity and wellbeing. Fortunately, recent scientific findings show how we can bolster our cognitive functioning to help counter or reduce the impact of ageing.

Indeed, when we engage in certain habits, challenges and activities, many of our cognitive abilities are less vulnerable to decline, and may even continue to develop as we age, reflected in increased competence or wisdom. Recognizing this is most relevant given our ageing workforce.

A relatively recent, and most heartening, health discovery is that we continue to develop new brain cells and neural pathways throughout our entire lives. Such “neurogenesis” and “neuroplasticity”, which support effective lifelong learning, are especially facilitated by such activities as regular physical exercise (especially including 40 minutes or so of aerobic exercise several times per week), taking on cognitive challenges such as engaging in complex new learning whilst paying mindful attention, and seeking out novelty as well as situations which greatly inspire or move us. Meditation and active social engagement also help.

Our mental abilities, and the brain structures and neural pathways that support them, mainly decline with disuse – it is literally a case of use it or lose it. However, a famous example of how our brains can keep developing as we age, along with our skills, is the fact that London cab drivers have larger hippocampi (the hippocampus is a brain structure involved in memory) the longer they have been in the job. This reflects the extra effort and experience they have put into learning so many locations and routes. A famous study of Minnesota nuns also showed that when people continued habits of rich mental stimulation throughout a lifetime, their apparent cognitive ability could be so well preserved that it disguised the impact of such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, never suspected until the pathology was found at post-mortem.

As Elkhonon Goldberg described in The Wisdom Paradox, some mental processes strengthen with age. If our work or other pursuits involve much practice at analyzing and solving particular problems we develop more established and sophisticated forms of problem solving, based on pattern recognition, which become second nature. We can solve more problems more quickly and with an economy of effort. The repeated practice of such complex problem solving bolsters intuition and facilitates competence and wisdom. In a culture that seems overly focused on the benefits of youth, such resourcefulness is often underestimated.

Older people might be slower at learning new skills, but may well compensate for that, especially if they have always been mentally active. Our long-term cognitive abilities depend not only on our intellectual potential, but also the effort and practice we have applied beforehand and the quality of our learning and mentoring along the way.

As an inspiring example, the person from whom I learnt most about neuroplasticity was Ernest Rossi, a psychotherapy genius whom I first encountered in his 70s, after a stroke that still affects his speech. He used some new experiences during his rehabilitation to invent one of the most creative and powerful psychotherapy techniques I have ever witnessed, a technique now found to influence the impact of approximately 200 genes influencing a vast range of physical and mental health abilities and problems.