Learning New Tricks: Healthy Aging and the Creative Brain

From the beginning of human evolution, our creative brains have constantly helped us to develop new technologies and techniques to eliminate predators, produce more food, defend our communities, travel the globe, and prevent disease. In so doing, we’ve ushered in a new age of existence, in which a greater number of people are living longer than ever before in our history.

In a world of increasingly extended human lifespans, where so much depends upon invention, one of the most important issues is brain health. What are the mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences of developing medical, social, and technological means to help more people live longer lives?

Are debilitating mental and physical issues — rooted in brain changes associated with aging — unavoidable? Should we expect ever-growing numbers of people to require constant care by family members, medical professionals, and nursing-home staff? What can help make these “extra” years of life more meaningful and satisfying?

All of these questions essentially hinge on how we learn to keep our brains healthy. Surprisingly, maintaining our brains’ health is more than just a matter of having good genes, sticking to a good diet, and avoiding unhealthy lifestyle habits. New research is showing that having a healthy brain, especially as we age, is an intensely creative, social, and spiritual endeavor.

Scientists tend to agree that certain physiological changes commonly occur as our brains age. Blood flow decreases, and circulation of oxygen and spinal fluid is reduced. This leads to the buildup of toxins and free radicals that can potentially harm the brain. In some individuals, the development of brain plaque leads to serious neurological diseases. Not exactly a pretty picture, right? These “brutal truths,” as some researchers refer to them, may be more or less unavoidable.

But don’t despair! Our brains, like our bodies, have the ability to compensate for the normal degradation of certain structures and processes. Recent brain research has revealed that we actually have an incredible amount of brain plasticity. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize its flow and function to provide necessary mental and physical capabilities. Evidence of this can be seen in individuals who relearn speech using different regions of the brain after their verbal centers have been damaged due to injury or disease.

The plasticity of the brain allows us to deal with brain “degradation” without losing function. Even more interestingly, some scientists suggest that processes which are typically thought of as “degradation” could actually contribute to new and useful ways of thinking. For example, the demyelination of neurons as we age (the breakdown of myelin sheaths that help neurons function) is often seen as evidence of a degrading brain. However, researchers now theorize that this process could actually contribute to freer connections between diverse thoughts and memories — in short, more creative thinking.

Rather than attempting to prevent changes in the brain as we age — which is basically impossible — it may be useful to focus on what we can do to improve the creative and compensatory ability of the brain by capitalizing on its plasticity. Research has shown that activities stimulating the active engagement of all aspects of the brain have the greatest beneficial effect on long-term health and wellness. Everything from doing crossword puzzles to riding a bike to ballroom dancing seems to help. Social interaction is also important. By focusing on healthy and meaningful brain functions — rather than just brain anatomy and chemistry — we find that brain health is a matter of “use it or lose it.” Rather than trying to prevent changes in the brain, the challenge becomes how to live a life of creative and meaningful brain engagement.

As we age, most of us will behave differently; we may move more slowly, take longer to recall information, even speak slower — but in the end, we can often maintain a high degree of capability. Elderly individuals taking cognitive tests typically score just as well as their younger counterparts if they are given a little extra time to answer. Going faster does not necessarily mean doing better. Is it really a bad thing to take 15 seconds, instead of 10, to answer a question? As a society shouldn’t we be looking for ways to “slow down” and not rush through life anyway?

Perhaps the cultural emphasis on haste could be the reason we think that everyone is going to “lose it” eventually. Although it’s true that physical and cognitive decline can limit our ability to contribute to society, it’s cultural expectation itself that conditions our sense of decline. When we have the expectation of becoming less creative as we get older, then we tend to not seek out creative activities and endeavors, and thus actualize a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anthropological evidence suggests that for thousands of years, human beings lived in tribal communities — extended families that united relatives and friends across multiple generations. It goes without saying that the elders in this type of community performed vital roles in social life: from cooking and caring for children to presiding over ceremonies and sharing traditional stories for education or entertainment.

These traditional elder roles utilized the wisdom of experience along with spiritual and artistic abilities. It’s not hard to imagine a group of children gathering around a fire, eagerly waiting for the nightly storytelling session conducted by community elders. Storytelling may have been so ubiquitous in traditional human cultures that our brains are literally designed to get better at it the older we grow. Modern brain research shows that vocabulary and verbal skills typically keep improving at an age when many other functions are diminishing. But in today’s era, when entertainment and storytelling are largely conducted through mass media, rather than personal interactions involving the elderly generation, the ability for storytelling is not necessarily appreciated.

Community elders were also traditionally responsible for the transmission of spiritual life, including stories and rituals defining a culture’s creation, purpose, relationship to the land, modes of personal interaction, and connection with a higher power. The ability to see past the material world — grasping the importance and influence of the invisible nature underlying our physical life — requires not only experience, but also a flexibility of thinking and perception. Our brains’ plasticity means that we are always capable of creating new ways of perceiving the world.

With the increasing number of people living into their 80s, 90s, and 100s, we need to find new ways to make sure that we are living meaningful and healthy lives. In an effort of promoting health and happiness into the advanced years, The National Center for Creative Aging — an organization dedicated to supporting socially engaging and creative activities for older individuals — has adapted a three-pronged mission focusing on community design, arts and activity programs, and lifelong learning opportunities. For more tips on maintaining a healthy brain, you can also read “In Full Bloom: A Brain Education Guide for Successful Aging” by Ilchi Lee. It contains dozens of easy and effective exercise and meditation techniques to facilitate successful aging.

Successful aging is not just a health issue, and its impact is not just on the elderly. First and foremost, society must engender respect and care for the elder generation by recognizing the importance of creative and spiritual work being done by senior citizens. Increased social interaction across generations facilitates a sense of community and understanding, and can be a source of strength for people young and old. Not only do senior citizens feel better about themselves, but all members of society can live a less anxious life knowing that time is not “running out” — that important creative work need not be completed while we’re young.

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