Not too long ago, neuroscientists thought that our brain structure was completed sometime after the age of 20 and changed almost not at all after that. The commonly accepted theory was that neurons die continuously after birth, their numbers decreasing and no new cells developing. Now, however, we know that our brains constantly change from the moment we are born until the time we die. Not only do new neurons develop even when we’re older, but new networks are created between neurons, and brain function can improve.
Of course, certain phenomena of aging do take place in our brains as we get older, just as they occur in our bodies. In the same way that our muscles grow weaker if we don’t use them, parts of our brains that we don’t use become less effective. Memory, concentration, and reaction time decrease in old age unless we train the brain’s cognitive functions. We can keep our brains young and healthy, though, if we take good care of them and train them well. Our brains have incredible resilience. This is a great hope for all of us, for no matter how old we are, we can learn and experience new things and change our thoughts and habits. It’s easy to think that people don’t change much and that it’s especially hard to change when we get older. But people can change. In fact, they are changing every moment, no matter how old they are, thanks to the brain’s amazing plasticity. It’s important that we guide the direction of that change by training our brains.
More than 20 years ago, I put together principles and methods for developing and using the brain’s potential, creating a system of self-development that I called “brain education.” When I first told people about brain education, the public perception of the brain was quite different from what it is now. Back then, it was rare for anyone other than doctors and researchers to talk about the brain in everyday conversation. When I told people they could take care of their brain health themselves instead of entrusting it entirely to experts, some were afraid, as if I had mistakenly touched a hazardous object that shouldn’t be messed with.
Now the idea that we can manage our own brain health just as we manage our physical health is widespread. This change is extremely fortunate, since we can’t do anything without using our brains. In addition to the thinking and memory roles we commonly attribute to the brain, basic physiological functions for maintaining life, such as blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and hormones, are controlled by the brain. To manage your brain is to manage your life. When your brain improves, everything in your life improves.
Fortunately, anyone can understand the set of skills needed to manage the brain. The earlier you learn these skills, the better, and then you will need to improve and refine them throughout your life. Old age is no exception. This is a time when it’s easy for the brain to get rusty unless it’s managed well, so you must manage your brain more actively now than at any other time in your life.
Give Your Brain “Vitamin H”
The basic needs of life are the same in our later years as they are at any age, and everything that makes a healthy person makes a healthy brain. So, if you want to make your brain healthy, develop good lifestyle habits that contribute to the health of your mind and body — get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, eat balanced meals, and engage in appropriate social activities.
There is one thing, though, that stands above the rest as necessary nutrition for the human body, mind, and spirit: hope. Without hope, there is no drive even to live, and the more hope we have, the more motivated and enthusiastic we feel. Hope is the most powerful supplement available to us, and thankfully, we can make hope for ourselves any time just by changing our thoughts and attitudes. Whether you’re eight or 80, hopes and dreams are the best way to activate and engage your brain.
A study led by Dr. Patrick Hill of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada followed more than 6,000 participants for 14 years. People who had a goal in life were found to have a risk of death 15 percent lower than those who did not. Finding a goal helps you live longer regardless of when you find that purpose, the study showed, but the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier the positive effects are evident. Greater purpose in life consistently predicted lower mortality risk across the lifespan, showing the same benefit for younger, middle-aged, and older participants during the follow-up period, Hill said. He added, “There are a lot of reasons to believe that being purposeful might help protect older adults more so than younger ones.” The results of this research were published in Psychological Science.
Purposeful people also have a lower probability of suffering from dementia, according to study results published by Dr. Patricia Boyle in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
I can speak with greater confidence because of these research results, but in fact, this principle is obvious when you think about it. People who have purpose, who have hopes and dreams, will naturally be more positive about their lives and more proactive in their self-care — exercising more, eating better, and managing their stress. These attitudes toward life produce results that accumulate over time, naturally contributing to long-term brain health and longevity.
This article is excerpted from Ilchi Lee’s book “I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years: The Ancient Secret to Longevity, Vitality, and Life Transformation.”