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Your brain doesn't decline in old age - if you look after it properly


'You should pay attention to the physical health of your brain, by eating well, exercising and sleeping enough'

'You should pay attention to the physical health of your brain, by eating well, exercising and sleeping enough'

'You should pay attention to the physical health of your brain, by eating well, exercising and sleeping enough'

Here’s some good news for those of us entering our golden years: in his new book, The Changing Mind, leading neuroscientist and bestselling author Dr Daniel Levitin argues that you can drastically increase your healthy years by looking after your brain and that the idea that your mind will inevitably decline with age is false.

In fact, old age is a time of extraordinary — and beneficial — brain development.


The Changing Mind

The Changing Mind

The Changing Mind

“It is never too late to tilt the balance in our favour, to increase our health span by making important changes to how we approach ageing”, he writes.

Levitin, the bestselling author of This is Your Brain on Music and The Organised Mind, said when he started writing this new book, he had two specific readers in mind: “I was looking for advice that I could give to my own parents who were in their 80s”, he says. “I realised that a lot of what we’ve learned hasn’t trickled down to the average reader.

“There are distinct advantages and growth opportunities that come from the later stage of life”, says Levitin. To start with, there are the remarkable improvements in mood. Last month a widely-reported study found that the unhappiest time of life is 47.2, and that after middle age, things start to look up.

“As a trend, older adults become more emotionally stable and more compassionate”, says Levitin. The idea is that whereas those in their teens and 20s might be prone to mood swings, those with more experience of life are able to see the bigger picture.

Anyone who has noticed an older relative mellowing with age may be right: changes in the older brain tend to make people become more tolerant of others and grateful.

These changes can be seen not just in the behaviour of older people, but also in their biology: “You don’t have the same neurochemistry at age eight or 38 or 68”, he says. Dopamine, a chemical associated with drive and pleasure decreases with age while norepinephrine and serotonin remain stable.

There are even intellectual improvements to look forward to, says Levitin. Among the enhancements are “certain kinds of problem-solving, especially those that require compassion and empathy.”

The wisdom of older people is real and could be explained by changes in the brain which allows the left and right sides to communicate more freely with each other, allowing you to combine analytical and creative thinking.

Even worries about memory loss are overblown, and a lot of them can be explained by other factors. For example, in later life changes in the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain mean we can get more easily distracted, which impacts on your short-term memory. You’re not forgetting, you’re just distracted thinking about something else.

There is also age bias in memory testing: a study from 2018 shows that older people with hearing loss perform just as well as younger adults when they were tested in a quiet place.

Interestingly, older people perform as well as younger adults when they are tested in the morning, but perform worse after mid-afternoon. Changes in the orbitofrontal cortex, which sits just behind your eyeballs, mean that after 60 your body clock is likely to shift forwards a couple of hours. Of course, many people suffer from extreme memory loss and dementia as they get older. But it’s not inevitable, says Levitin, and there is plenty we can do to reduce our risk, like eating healthily, not smoking and drinking less alcohol.

If you do start to suffer from the symptoms of dementia, don’t assume you have it. Check your medications first: the number one cause of confusion and disorientation in older people is side effects from medication. Make sure you let your doctor know what drugs you are taking before starting on a new one so there is no unintended adverse interaction.

But despite all this good news, listening to Levitin can be disappointing for anyone hoping for a quiet retirement. Your brain needs to be constantly challenged to stay sharp, he says and his number one piece of advice is “don’t retire”.

His own grandfather was pushed out of his job as a radiologist at the age of 65 because “he was seen as old and irrelevant”. “The irony is that...radiologists do better as they age because radiology involves pattern matching, and the more patterns you’ve matched, the better you are.” As a result, he went “into a depression” and died only two years later at the age of 67.

But it was different for Levitin’s father. He was “strongly encouraged” to step down from his job in business at 62 so someone younger could have his job. But he refused to let it be the end of his career and got a new job in academia.

He is now a professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. “He’s 87 and just signed a four-year extension to his teaching contract”, Levitin laughs.

You should also pay attention to the physical health of your brain, by eating well, exercising and sleeping enough. It appears that eating less is good for your mind: a hungry brain has to stay sharp to look for food.

Levitin’s point is that you need to keep pushing yourself in old age. He has done it in perhaps a slightly extreme way: “I took flying lessons to get my private pilot’s license”. Flying lessons or not, best to at least put the slippers to one side.

Irish Independent

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