The following is a 15 min. talk given
at the Feb. 2, 2014, meeting of the Fort Lauderdale Prime Timers. (Here is a Spanish translation, and a
French translation. )
Making our Brains Younger.
I want to talk today about an
experience we all have been having….watching our minds seem to slow down a bit over the years.
In the first part of this talk, I
want to describe some of the changes in our brain on aging. And then in the second part I want to
suggest a few things we can do to reverse or slow down these changes. There is some good news…over
the past 20 years we have learned that older brains have as much
ability to grow new nerve cells and connections as younger
brains. Experiments have shown that some brain exercises can make
our brains function as well as most 20 year olds. We can reclaim
our whole visual field, improve our hearing, increase the speed
and accuracy of our attention.
We all slowly loose it after we reach
a physical and mental prime in our late 20’s, by our 60’s
we are beginning to have errors in understanding. If you’re
20 to 40 years old and someone starts talking twice as fast you understand
them, no problem. 70-90 years olds understand very little of it. Basically,
those of us who are in our 70’s are in the bottom 20% relative to
people in their 20’s with respect to reasoning, spatial visualization,
perceptual speed and accuracy, and memory. Our brains simply slow down, compared with a younger person’s brain.
We move our eyes less frequently
around a scene, spending more time staring at a particular point in space
recording less information than a bright-eyed young individual who is bouncing
their eyes around the same scene to take five or more “snapshots” of it.
By the time you’re
80 years old, the portion of the horizon in front of you that you reliably see
and report on is only about half the view of the world that you were taking in
at age 20.
That’s doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t
see the periphery, you just don’t typically do it.
It is as if we were saying to ourselves, “From
now on, I’m going to use a TV that is 50% smaller than the one I have, I’m going to put Botox in the muscles
that control my eyes so they can only start straight ahead, and I’m
going to stop paying attention to unexpected things? This is an example of negative
(The above, and much of the
information in this talk, is taken from Michael Merzenich’s
recent book “Soft-Wired
- How the new science of brain plasticity can change your life.” Available on Amazon as soft cover or
Another example of negative learning,
suppose you fall and hurt yourself.
Now, to prevent that, its natural to
flex your hips and knees and separate your feet just a bit to stabilize your
stance, regularize your stepping, and turn your head down more often to watch
changed the functional axis of the balance organ in your head to a less
effective mode. Now if you are
bumped and stumble the visual scene comes at you faster than you can react. If
you were equivalently bumped while looking forward the changes in the visual
scene would be slower and you would more likely be able to react in time.
Think about hearing. It seems like
you can’t quite follow along with the radio or TV as well, so you
turn up the volume. Accuracy in reception fades a little more. Up goes the
loudness. Accuracy fades again. The
problem is not the volume, its the discrimination and accuracy of your hearing.
If a radio station isn’t tuned in correctly, you turn the tuner knob to fix it— not the volume knob. For your brain,
you’re turning the wrong knob! What you need to do is practice
improving your listening skills, how rapidly and accurately you can
discriminate sounds. You can do
this by paying more attention and also with hearing exercises I will mention.
Think about navigation, finding our
way somewhere, of course we all probably use this great new technology that is
supposed to help us all out, GPS navigation in our cars. We don’t
have to practice navigation any more, and what this means is that a crucial
part of our brain involved in maps and memory isn’t
used, and it shrinks. If we use it
to make mental maps and navigate, it grows, London cab drivers who have to memorize
A to Zed have a much larger hippocampus than most people. In any part of your brain use it,
grow it; don’t
use it, loose it.
Our older brains are less effective
at suppressing interferences from all this stuff that is going on around us and
at suppressing our own mind wandering. This problem arises in part because the “signal”— the brain’s activities that represent the thing
you’re trying to remember or do— is growing weaker. When a baby is born it hears only
noise, and slowly learns what the important signals are, aging brains reverse
this, returning to noise.
Let’s get back to a little more optimistic note.
We can get it back, at least much of
it. The older brain actually has as
much ability to grow new nerve cells and connections as younger brains. We can reclaim our whole visual
field, improve our hearing, increase
the speed and accuracy of our attention, make our movement more varied and
The simple rule, which I can’t repeat enough is Use it or lose
it, keep nerve connections active
and growing or let them atrophy and shrink. Whether you are using it or losing
it depends to large extent on what kind of brain space you are in.
Your brain has two major operating
modes: the attentional mode and the
narrative or default mode. These two modes are happening mainly in different areas of our brains.
The attentional mode is centered
right in the present, paying attention, noticing, engaging questions or
problems, observing things. It’s a task positive network, does
physical cause/effect reasoning, uses the exterior parts of our cortex , the
upstairs parts of our brains.
The other mode the narrative or
default mode, it’s sort of like when you’ve thrown your car out of gear, into
neutral. This is when you are mind
wandering, thinking about things, being introspective about things unrelated to
visual and hearing stimuli that are coming at you in the present. It is more
introspective, stimulus independent thought, using more inside parts of our
cortex, the downstairs parts of our brains.
brain stays more alive and vital, can actually change in a younger
direction the more you keep yourself in the present centered
attentional mode. It is from this attentional mode that we
can re-strengthen the connections between our brain cells, speed up the
operations of the brain to improve their sharpness, completeness,
accuracy, control our attention better, slow the shrinking of brain
centers, increase the size of areas that do learning and memory.
Once we in the present, paying attention, there is one activity
that is more important than any other in keeping your brains and bodies
alive. I’m sure you all know what it is.
Just Move! Do anything to get just a little
bit out of breath, whether your running, walking, using a walker, or in a
wheelchair. Hundreds of
experiments have shown that simple exertion or exercise not only increases the
number of stem cells that regenerate muscle, it also causes major changes in your
Exercise increases levels of a
molecule (abbreviated BDNF, for brain derived neurotropic factor.) that stimulates the growth of nerve
cells, especially in the hippocampus portion of our brain that is important for
memory and navigation. Exercise
keeps our cells young by delaying the normal shortening at the ends of our DNA
that occurs on aging. It increases
the functional talking between different parts of our brain that is responsible
for our executive control, focus, and attention.
Exercise protects against diabetes,
cancer, and age related diseases like Alzheimer’s. It is an
antidote to depression, and generally makes people more relaxed and
The exercise we are talking about
have to be some big deal. Walking,
housecleaning. Going to the gym only once a week can prevent normal loss of
muscle mass with aging. One study
on people in their mid-sixties showed that walking three times a week, building
up to 40 minutes at a stretch, after a year had caused a 2% increase in the
volume of their hippocampus, while in the control non-walking group the volume
had gone down by 1.5%
You can refine your brain through
refining your movement,. focus on
the feeling of the flow of movement, use your flexible spine and core to move
with your whole body, avoid stereotyped habitual movements, slow them down, speed
them up, use different routes to the result. Monitor the quality and precision of
your movement, and reward yourself (in your mind) for every little improvement.
Now, what about directly exercising your
brain as well as your body?
You can tell me the simplest way to
do that. Just do any of your
customary habitual activities a little bit different, do something new. Try to shave with the other hand, or
unzip your fly with the other hand. It will feel weird, but after several trials you can do it, and you will
have grown some new nerve cells or changed the connections between existing
The brain wants novelty, which grow
and change its connections. Habit,
doing the same things on autopilot, causes areas of the brain to shrink.
Now another incredibly important
point, maybe not as important for this group, because you are all here, is to stay engaged with other
humans. Hundreds of studies have by
now shown that social isolation correlates with diminished immune system
function, increased susceptibility to illness, inflammation, feelings
of helplessness and depression.
Finally I want to mention reversing
the aging of your brain using technology.
You can make your brain more youthful
in a big way if you are comfortable using a web browser and a computer mouse or
a tablet like an iPad. You can use
either of these gadgets to improve your brain speed, attention, accuracy,
memory, and so on.
I want to caution, as with any other
senior service providers, that you need to be on the lookout for snake oil
salesmen, trying to sell you $250 software packages that claim to be
scientific, stuff you can get
either free or for much less money.
I’ve reviewed many of these regimes (dakim.com, luminosity.com, brainbaseline.com, cognifit.com ), and of the
various ones I have looked at, I think the best, the the most evidence and
science based stuff, is Brain HQ, for brain headquarters, www.positscience.com originated by a guy named Michael Merzenich and his
collaborators. It is featured on the AARP website at brain.aarp.org where you can get a discount on using it, I have followed Merznich’s work for many years. He is the guy who originally showed how
plastic our adult brains are, areas of our brain can grow or contract with use
or disuse. His book “Soft-Wired - how the new science of
brain plasticity can change your life” was published on Oct. 7 in soft cover, and is available in
Kindle form also. It gives a good description of brain changes on aging and how
they can be reversed. It mentions the computer exercises but also lists more general daily things one can
do to maintain brain and body vitality.
The exercises play in a web browser,
Windows or Apple, also on tablets like an iPad. Studies now done with thousands of
subjects in many locations have shown that most 65 year and older trainees who
do these exercises for about 40 hours over a period of time, show 30 year old neurological abilities,
with improvements in visually related attention, recognition, memory, etc. ,
and that even 10 years after training are in better health, with fewer falls,
injuries, and driving accidents, lower incidence of depression, generally more ‘with it’.
The exercises work on our ‘core assets‘ Alertness
and focus, positive mood, learning and remembering, accuracy, speed, rapid
sequencing and prediction, Suppression of noise and distractions, fluency, time
and place navigation, people skills,
I had a complete “WHOA” experience doing some of these exercises, it felt like I could feel my brain
changing as I was doing the exercises, for example, ones that widen your visual field and
get your eyes to move around more quickly. I thought about trying to
demonstrate some of these here, projecting from a computer onto the screen we
have…. but decided this really wasn’t very realistic, the screen is too small for many of you
to see, there are too many of us, and a number of us are not that comfortable
with web browsers, mice, or tablets. I have the exercises on my laptop here,
you can check with me if you would like to see them after the meal today or
some other time. If you use a web
browser you can use the google search box on your browser to find the exercises
mentioning. Enter brainhq, one
word, short for brain head quarters, and you will see the link. And by the way, if you are curious about
my mind blog writing, music and history, you can just enter my last name,
Bownds, in a google search window.
That’s it, I’m done.