Rewire your middle-aged brain to ‘think younger’

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Call it the ‘myth of age’–that unshakable belief that the older you get, the less you remember. And yet, according to the latest science, the middle-aged brain can not only be rewired to ‘think younger’–it holds some startling surprises, too.

Your aging brain can outmanoeuvre a younger mind any day.

It may not seem like it some days, but the aging brain is adaptable and quick–possibly because unlike younger minds, it can use both hemispheres to think.

It’s a trick called bilaterialization and scientists Duke University found it in the brains of middle-aged study subjects. By learning to recruit  the strength of your brain’s powerful prefrontal cortex, in particular, you can develop what scientists have labelled ‘cognitive reserve’, or a sort of buffer against the effects of aging.

The result? The kind of brain strength that helps us get the point of argument faster than younger peers, to get the gist, size up the situation and act judiciously rather than rashly.

Yo, millennials: ‘Middle-aged wisdom’ is a thing. Really.

Maybe you can’t remember what you did last Tuesday, but while you angst about that, your brain is busy building up expertise and connections to create ‘middle-age wisdom.’

Sure, long-term studies have found that our well-being peaks around 65. But they’ve also encouragingly shown that between the ages of 40 and 65, we are able to think circles around those young millennials at work. Why? The middle-aged brain’s powers of reasoning, sizing up situations, socializing and assessing the big picture are at the best they’ll ever be.

One reason is that the amygdala–the fight or flight structure in the brain–responds much less to the negative than the positive stimuli in the middle-aged, possibly as  a subconscious but motivated choice: we know we have less time and that the tribe needs elders to survive better.

Then there’s the fatty white coating around neurons called myelin. Neuroscientists at UCLA and elsewhere have noted that myelin continues to grow late into middle-age. As myelin increases, it builds connections that help us make sense of our surroundings. This growth of white matter, as one Harvard scientist put it, may in itself be ‘middle-aged wisdom’.

The harder your body works, the better your brain will age.

Along with increasing blood flow and oxygen to the brain, aerobic exercise stimulates the dentate gyrus, the part of the hippocampus  responsible for memory. In a recent mouse study at Columbia University, researchers discovered that exercise stimulated the birth of twice as many new neurons in the dentate gurus as in mice who didn’t exercise.

And that may well be a clear sign that exercise is not only a potent producer of new neurons, it also selectively targets the brain’s dentate gyrus at the heart of the brain, which is an area that appears to decline with the normal aging process.

In another 2006 University of Illinois study, those over 60 who walked or ran three times a week for an hour also had less brain mass shrinkage, more brain volume and better left-right brain connection through the corpus callosum than those who were sedentary.

Yes, it’s all about what you put in your mouth.

Your brain needs food–good food–to function. That’s because while you’re thinking actively, your brain uses 50 percent of your body’s oxygen. Even when you’re zoned out, it still needs 10 percent to do its job, so it’s important to eat right.

Although there are no studies yet on the memory effects of eating single antioxidant-rich foods like prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries and garlic, scientists are focusing on a few promising components like vitamin C and E, gingko biloba, curcumin from turmeric and caffeine.

And what not to eat? It probably came as no surprise to scientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute that a diet high in red meat, transfats, simple sugars and simple carbs is 70 percent more likely to lead to Alzheimer ’s disease. According to another  study at Columbia University, unregulated blood sugar levels can be linked to lower blood volume in the dentate gyrus. The effect may well come with levels of glucose that aren’t necessarily seen with diabetes, but with the normal aging process as we reach middle age.

Play a video game. Learn a new skill. Then get off the couch and meet someone new. 

While crossword puzzles have been debunked as the panacea to memory loss, strategy video games and learning new skills are gaining favour. One small study showed that a group of 60-year-olds who trained themselves on piano were, after six months, better on cognitive tests.

Being sociable and happy also benefits the middle aged brain. According to a Johns Hopkins University study, men and women who volunteer have a slower rate of memory decline. They found that meeting and greeting new people is hard, so it’s good for your brain. Not only does it require the brain to remember a face, make connections and associations, but meeting new people engages higher social skills and the ability to assess others.

Source: The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain by Barbara Strauch. Penguin Books.

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