A common misconception is that our brains decrease in performance as we age. While it’s true that our flesh, bones and joints degrade over time from use, the opposite can be true for our cognitive ability. While your brain might be getting older, it can also continue to improve in performance.
In the last decade, neuroscientists have concluded that it is possible to improve one’s “fluid intelligence” even as they age. As explained by Andrea Kuszewski in Scientific American, fluid intelligence is “your capacity to learn new information, retain it, then use that new knowledge as a foundation to solve the next problem, or learn the next new skill, and so on.” Some have even said that you could live to be 120 years old, and have a higher cognitive ability than you did when you were 25. The secret to keeping your brain in stellar condition?
- Social connection
It seems like everyone I talk to about good sleeping habits believes that they’re special and don’t need as much sleep as everyone else. Decades of sleep research has shown that even amongst the variance of unique needs, the low end of the spectrum is 7 hours a night for an adult.
Benefits: Your brain does most of its important development while you sleep, solidifying things it has learned during the day by establishing new neural pathways.
What you can do: Have a standard nighttime routine that prepares your mind for rest (and excludes any screens 1 hour before). For me that’s setting out my clothes for the next day, prepping breakfast, setting my things by the door and reading (or listening to) something while I lay in bed.
Popular opinion is that it gets harder to learn new things as we age, like how to go from a flip phone to smart phone. People believe that they simply get “set” in their ways. The truth is that their brain just needs some exercise, some challenge.
Benefits: Have you ever felt the excitement of learning something new? Almost like a new energy has overtaken you. That’s because novelty (newness) triggers dopamine in the brain, and dopamine stimulates neurogenesis – the creation of new neurons in the brain that prepares your brain for learning.
What you can do: Never stop learning! Explore areas of interest that you’ve never looked into before, read books outside of your comfort zone, master a puzzle game like Sudoku, and then move onto another one. The newness is what keeps your brain working hard.
Most of us correlate food with our digestive system and our weight, not with our brains.
Benefits: Over the years studies have come to show that certain foods can extend memory capabilities, prevent dementia and encourage neurogenesis.
What you can do: Be intentional about eating brain food. Make them a regular part of your breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here’s a neat visual of what a healthy plate looks like according to Harvard.
To think that we can exercise for 20 minutes a day and counteract the negative effects of sitting/laying is irrational. According to the Washington Post, the average person sits 10 hours a day, and if we add to that the hours we sleep, we’re immobile for ~18 hours a day.
Benefits: Movement gets your blood flowing, pumping oxygen to your brain. According to a study done at the University of British Columbia, aerobic exercises add to that by increasing the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and verbal memory. Other studies suggest that people who exercise have greater volume in their prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory.
What you can do: The best movement / exercise identified for brain development is yoga. On top of a regular exercise routine, integrate movement into more parts of your day. Stand during meetings, park farther away from the store and walk, get up and stretch/walk at least 10 minutes out of every hour, etc.
It’s crazy to think that we can live a healthy and fulfilling life without other people. According to NYT, “Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.”
Benefits: Positive social interaction causes oxytocin levels in your brain to spike, and when that happens you build trust and deepen your bond with the people around you. The higher the quality of your social relationships, the higher your general satisfaction with life.
What you can do: Schedule lunch with friends or date nights with your spouse. Set aside time to spend with people you know and people you don’t. Nurture existing relationships and endeavor to find new ones, slowly and intentionally.
The conclusion is simple: get good sleep every night, never stop learning, eat well, be active and spend time with other people. As we age we must not fall victim to the myth that it gets harder to learn something new, that we can’t get as much sleep as we need or that exercise is a luxury. The only thing making those statements true is us believing them. Henry Ford said it best, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”