Everything we thought we knew about the brain is wrong. In the last few decades, scientists have discovered that the brain can change and grow and improve even well into advanced age. By using a few simple tools to change your focus, you can thrive and accomplish ambitious goals at any age.
In 1979, eight men well into their 70s spent a week together in rural New Hampshire pretending it was really 1959. Some of the men had arthritis. Some walked with canes. But for one week, they lived in an environment that told them they were 20 years younger.
The music on the radio was from 1959. When they turned on the TV, which was black and white, they were greeted with the Ed Sullivan show. The books and magazines all suggested they really were in 1959.
The men were participating in a study designed by Ellen Langer, a Harvard University Psychology professor. As participants in Langer’s study, the men not only experienced an external environment that evoked their life 20 years earlier. They also were instructed to act as if they were living 20 years earlier, discussing the events of 1959 as if they were currently taking place.
There were no mirrors to remind them of their current age, and the only photos were of their younger selves. Nor did anyone treat them as if they were older. They were expected to carry their own bags and climb the stairs without assistance.
When they were tested a week later, the results were remarkable. The men had improved significantly by almost every measure. They were stronger, had greater dexterity, walked more easily, had better memory and cognition, as well as improved vision and hearing. Over 60% had higher intelligence scores.
Volunteers unconnected to the study observed before and after photos of the participants, and believed them to be two years younger in the pictures taken after the study – after just one week. A control group of elderly men, who were instructed to talk about how things were in 1959, but did not actually live as if it were 1959, also showed noticeable improvement, but not nearly as much.
Your Brain on Focus
The lesson here is not that you’ll feel younger if you live your life as if it’s 1959. The take-away is actually much deeper and far-ranging. What neuroscientists now know is that the brain can and does change (neuroplasticity) and even grows new neurons and new connections (neurogenesis) well into advanced age.
Langer’s work does have its critics and the study has yet to be replicated (although a new European study is in the works as I write this). What is now beyond dispute, however, is that the brain at virtually any age responds to what we do and how we focus, and that decline is hardly inevitable.
In a previous article, I discussed a recent study which found that 70-year-old brains produce virtually as many new neurons as do those of teenagers. Several studies have shown that regular meditation actually changes the brain’s structure, particularly in the hippocampus, which controls learning and memory. In a study by Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, 50-year-olds who were put through a meditation program showed the same amount of grey matter in their brains as 25-year-olds.
Exercising regularly also positively impacts cognitive functioning as we age, as does maintaining a healthy diet. With each passing day, neuroscientists are discovering new ways that the brain can change to a far greater extent than we ever imagined.
How You Age is In Your Hands
Is it really that simple? Simple, yes. Easy, no. Because there’s more to the story, and the rest of it isn’t quite as rosy.
There is no shortage of evidence – both scientific and anecdotal – that learning can become more difficult with age, mental processes can become slower and memory can become less sharp. We’ve all heard someone say they are having a “senior moment” when they can’t remember something – even if they are years away from being a senior.
Although scientists do not agree among themselves as to the exact reasons for cognitive decline, or even the specific ways in which the brain declines, there is significant consensus that the brain does decline with age. In numerous studies, seniors as a group demonstrate slower reaction time, are more adversely affected by task-switching and multi-tasking, and have greater difficulty storing new information in long-term memory.
Yet . . . .
We all know people who are as sharp as a tack well into advanced age. Last week, I gave examples of older adults who changed the world both in middle age and as seniors. And certain aspects of cognitive functioning actually tend to improve with age. Older adults typically have better emotional regulation, which is arguably even more important for getting through your day than any specific cognitive skills.
And the data shows that, contrary to widespread popular belief, creativity increases with age. The best patents are awarded not to the 23-year old wiz kids, but far more often to the mid-50s inventors approaching retirement age. Not convinced? Benjamin Franklin invented the bifocal lens when he was nearly 80. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the iconic Guggenheim Museum at 92. Verdi wrote his beloved opera, Falstaff, in his mid-80s.
So although certain cognitive functions will decline with age absent your active intervention, your increased creative output and ability to work with people in ways that require greater emotional sensitivity can potentially more than compensate.
As for active intervention, if you take the right steps, you have a good shot at improving your cognitive abilities. Focusing on these four actions will maximize your ability to function optimally at any age:
1. Set Your Expectations High. It is possible to have a great memory when you are older. So if you’re forgetful, stop saying you’re having a senior moment, and instead start working on your memory. If you never remember where you put your keys, set up a system where you put things in the same place and can easily find them.
Set a stretch goal for yourself that you might have more readily set ten years ago – it could be running a marathon, or getting a degree, or learning Spanish, or developing the skills you need for that senior executive position, or starting that non-profit or business, or playing the piano – the possibilities are endless. Find the stretch goal that motivates you, think about how you would have gone about achieving it when you were younger, and put your plan in action, expecting the same of yourself now. 2. Watch Your Mindset. The 70-somethings in Professor Ellen Langer’s study managed to improve both their physical and mental functioning simply by pretending they were 20 years younger than they actually were. Let that sink in. Your mind has far greater power than you can begin to imagine.
You don’t need to literally live in the past, however, to start functioning as if you were younger. Simply think carefully about the mindset you carry around and the thoughts you tell yourself about yourself. Do you embrace the mindset of an older person, or of someone younger?
Shimon Peres became President of Israel just shy of his 84th birthday. He was over 90 when he stepped down, and continued to be active for two more years, until just before he died. Peres in his later years fully embraced technology and could be seen toting around his iPad, answering questions posed to him on Facebook by people from all over the world. It simply never occurred to him that he should be acting otherwise because he was older.
While embracing a young mindset may not lead to you becoming president of a country, it will likely cause you to be more productive, more energetic, more positive and more youthful.
3. Exercise Your Brain and Body Every Day. As I mentioned, there is now significant research showing that your cognitive functioning and ability to handle stress will improve with meditation and other mental focusing exercises. The research also shows that your brain (and body) greatly benefit from regular physical exercise as well as proper diet.
Even moderate exercise, such as walking, can make a big difference in your mood, thinking capacity and overall mental performance. And even a few minutes of mindfulness work, practiced regularly, will produce noticeable positive effects. Make a point of being physically and mentally active, and your life will literally be transformed.
4. Socialize. Your social circle has a big impact on your activities, your habits and your thinking. Smokers with fewer friends who smoke are more likely to succeed in their attempts to quit, and less likely to smoke in the first place. The same is true for virtually any activity, positive or negative.
Take a good look at your social circle. I’m not telling you to ditch your friends – but if you notice that the subject of conversation often turns to medical ailments or complaining in general, or your friends are more likely to ask you to join them for a burger than a trip to the gym – you may want to consider the impact this is having on you.
Just as the elderly men in the Langer study became younger by immersing themselves in an environment where everyone was acting younger, your ability to create a social circle with a youthful mindset focused on activities that improve mental and physical health will have a big impact on what you do and how you feel.
The next time you tell yourself that you’re getting old or having a senior moment – stop. Reverse course. Take one step toward being more youthful. You can start with any of the steps discussed in this article. There may not be a literal fountain of youth. But you don’t need one – the power to stay active and mentally sharp is in your hands.