Changing perceptions - training your brain to improve not decline, as you age
Updated: Sep 6, 2021
Heres the thing, yes we all will experience neural decline as we age, but (and this is a big BUT) that does NOT mean you will experience Cognitive Decline.
Neural Decline ≠ Cognitive Decline
It's really important to understand that Neural Decline is inevitable but Cognitive Decline is not. In the same way that it is common to experience muscle decline as we age, that doesn't mean you WILL be physically weaker. It might mean you need to train a bit harder, sleep a bit better and eat more healthily, but the outcome can actually be a stronger body.
Getting back to the brain... It is fair to say we treat the brain differently than the rest of the body, yes the brain is complex, and yes we still have much to learn about it, but in so many ways it needs the same stuff as the rest of the organs. Take the Cardiovascular system; good nutrition, sleep, exercise, lower stress, no smoking etc etc. will improve your cardiovascular health. All the same things are needed to improve brain health, countless studies have proven that these lifestyle choices have a significant bearing on brain health.
The 'Nun study' was a landmark study that began back in 1986, to examine the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Its still running today and the findings are fascinating; these nuns live longer and remain autonomous far beyond the general population. The combination of having a purpose, staying active, reading often and meditating are all believed to lead to a longer, healthier life. Perhaps the most fascinating finding though is that some of these nuns do develop Alzheimers, but we only find out after they pass away, through an autopsy. When they were living there were no symptoms of Alzheimers, they had trained their brains to stay healthy!
With anything we have the option to either prevent decline, or fix the problem, the challenge with this attitude towards our brains is that only one is possible now. There has always been experimental research into microchips that could one day replace our brains, but for now, thats just science fiction, what we do know is that our choices in early, mid, and late life have strong relationships with the risk of Alzheimer's disease, as well as other mental and cognitive disabilities of older age.
Our understanding of how to prevent cognitive decline is increasing fast, just this month we have seen findings publishing in Nature Human Behaviour which studied three key brain networks; alerting, orienting, and executive inhibition. The study found that both orienting and executive inhibition improved with age (João Veríssimo et al).
"We use all three processes constantly," Veríssimo explains. "For example, when you are driving a car, alerting is increases your preparedness when you approach an intersection. Orienting when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian. And executive function allows you to inhibit distractions such as birds or scenery so you can stay focused on driving."
The study found that only alerting abilities declined with age. In contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition actually improved.
The researchers hypothesise that because orienting and inhibition are simply skills that allow people to selectively attend to objects, these skills can improve with lifelong practice. The gains from this practice can be large enough to outweigh the underlying neural declines, Ullman and Veríssimo suggest. In contrast, they believe that alerting declines because this basic state of vigilance and preparedness cannot improve with practice.
The results have big implications for how we treat and think about the brain. As with the nuns, the more we use our brains, remain positive, stay social, active, meditate and eat well etc etc the stronger we make our brains, and the greater our lives will be.