Young of Heart, Young of Mind: How to Keep a Youthful Brain as You Age

Young of Heart, Young of Mind: How to Keep a Youthful Brain as You Age September 22, 2016

Staying young with exercise
[Image credit: iStock]

As people get older, they often become concerned about the health of their brains, even if they did not think much about the topic when they were young. We all hear stories of elders succumbing to the ravages of dementia, no longer able to recognize their loved ones or even to go about normal daily tasks. Losing our brain function seems like losing our independence and sense of self.

Fortunately, such a fate is not a foregone conclusion. Brain scientists have confirmed that many people maintain much of their cognitive ability into their nineties, and we now know that our habits when we are younger greatly affect the longevity of our brains. Whatever age you are now, you can begin to cultivate the habits that will lead to life-long brain health. Here are a few tips, from a Brain Education point of view:

Give yourself true challenges.

You never lose the ability to learn and to grow new brain connections. A long time ago, brain scientists thought only young people had this ability, but that has been proven false. Yes, it is true that the older brain is in general different than the younger brain, and that learning can be slower and memorization more difficult. However, older brains excel at crystalline intelligence, the ability to connect and use past knowledge and experience. For this reason, while learning may feel more difficult as you age, you are able to use that knowledge more efficiently and your experience of learning is richer and deeper.

So, the lesson is simple—keep learning and trying new things. This is the best way to keep your brain’s ability for learning and memory in top shape. Also, make sure you take on true challenges, not just the hobbies and subjects you excel at. If something is easy, that means you already have brain connections established related to that skill. Instead, try something hard, like learning a new language or taking a class that is outside of your comfort zone. If you do, you will extend your neural network, helping to ensure its long-term health.

Stay open to differing perspectives.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of ugly stereotypes about older people. One depicts them as grumpy and small-minded, constantly complaining that the world is “going to hell in a handbasket” and griping about “kids these days.” It’s unfair to generalize about older people in this way, but sadly some people do fall into that kind of a negative rut. You can combat that stereotype, though, by remaining positive and open to different perspectives.

In a way, it is understandable that some older people become resistant to change. After all, if things worked well for them with the beliefs that they have held their whole lives, why should they change their minds? Well, the problem is that the world continuously changes, and what worked for you may not work for a new generation. So, let your wisdom be fluid, able to adapt to a new world. Also, remember that your beliefs about the world are just beliefs; they are not facts or universal laws. If they become cemented in place, you weight down your own growth and your wisdom bears little relevance to younger people living in a changing world.

Eat right and get your exercise.

Taking care of your body is taking care of your brain. Chances are, you have already seen a lot about this in the popular press, so I don’t need to belabor this point. All the things that are good for your general health will help to preserve your brain’s functions, as well.

First, exercise regularly. A sedentary lifestyle is one of the worst things you can do to your brain. And you don’t have to join a gym or take on a special sport to gain the positive effects. Simple activities like walking stimulate many areas of the brain simultaneously, keeping the connections in good condition. Also, good cardiovascular health ensures that sufficient blood and oxygen are carried to the brain, which is absolutely essential for the brain’s functioning. Lastly, exercise reduces stress, one of the worst brain-killers of all.

Also, eat a healthy diet. Again, if the rest of your body benefits, so will your brain. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables for the anti-oxidants that help combat oxidation, one of the main causes of brain aging. In addition, eat fish and seafood a few times a week. The omega-3 oils they contain are known to increase gray matter and to reduce the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Watch your emotions.

One of the most important principles that I teach my students is this: you choose your emotions. This is important to understand because too often people relinquish their power to create their own happiness. Instead, they think that their emotions are just automatic by-products of their situation. So, if their situations do not perfectly match their desires, which is more often the case than not, they doom themselves to unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

If you realize your power to choose happiness, you will be surprised how quickly your attitude about life can improve. This is very important for brain health since depression and negativity lead to cognitive decline. So, watch yourself and note if you are choosing positivity or negativity. Yes, there are times when sadness or anger are natural and normal, such as when we lose a loved one or have been hurt by someone. But how long do you linger on these things? Are you forgetting about the many blessings in your life? If you look carefully, you will see that the focus of your attention is your choice, and that a smile is often the best choice of all.

Know your eternal self.

At any age, it is important to know that you are more than just your body. And, as important as your brain is, you are more than just your brain, too. There is a part of you that is never-ending, a part that was here before you were born and will remain long after you die. This is your True Self.

Your brain is important because it is the operating system for your life, the organ through which you will take in information and make decisions for your life. How you operate it is up to you. You can operate it based on the desires of the self-centered ego, or you can let the True Self be in charge of its functions.

If you allow the True Self to take the reins of your brain, you have a good brain, young or old. In fact, a True Self brain, or a Power Brain in my own term, is beyond young or old, it is an eternal brain. If you have ever seen an older person with light shining out from their eyes, even while they are confined to a wheelchair or a hospital bed, you have seen a Power Brain.

Ultimately, if you live long enough, you will see some of the functions of your brain decline. If you take good care of your brain, hopefully that won’t be much of an issue until you’re 110 or even older. The good news is that, no matter how old we get, we are the caretakers of our brains and we can use them to make the world a better place, right until the last day of our lives.

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