We’ve got it so wrong about the impact of ageing on our brains. Ready for some great news? Posted on February 21, 2020February 21, 2020 by Peter Meadows There’s a picture of ageing that most people carry in their heads. It’s one of inevitably being increasingly forgetful, irrelevant, and with limited ability to learn. And it’s time to see things differently. That’s the conviction of Daniel Levitin, an expert in how the brain works. And the news is good. Because science is now revealing our older years to be very different from the accepted stereotypes. Very good indeed. You are still a smarty pants. Daniel Levitin’s been applying his discoveries to the brains and lives of those in their retirement years. Put simply, his message is – Though your pants might now be bigger, you are still a smarty-pants. But what about those times you’ve lost your keys – again? Can’t remember thingamajig’s name – again? Walked into a room but can’t remember why – again? Daniel, a neuroscientist, cognitive psychologist, and with five best-selling books on the science of the brain to his credit says ‘Don’t blame your age because you are just as smart as you were’. Don’t believe the myth. The myth is that with ageing comes a steepening loss of being able to remember. Yet, insists Daniel, the decline is far less than we have come to believe. More than that, the way we frame our expectations has a big impact on how we see things. Daniel points out that having taught undergraduates for his entire career, he’s watched them make all kinds of short-term memory errors. He says, ‘They walk into the wrong classroom; turn up to exams without a pencil; forget something I taught two minutes ago.’ This, he asserts, is all similar to the kinds of things their elders do. But the difference is how we come to describe such events. These error making students don’t think: ‘This has to be a sign of Alzheimer’s.’ Instead they put it down to being too busy, not having enough sleep, or for some other reason. But for someone 50 years or so older the prevailing explanation is that some marbles have now gone missing – accompanied by a worry about the health of their brain. More than that, there’s the fact that older adults have more memories to search through to find what they’re looking for. Our brain becomes crowded with memories and information. It’s not an inability to remember that’s the issue. But that there’s so much more information to sort through. But don’t we start to forget words as the years go by? According to one neuroscientist, Deborah Burke, of Pomona College’s Project on Cognition and Ageing, when older adults lose track of individual words it’s not the word itself that’s forgotten but just its sound. Our brains are better than we realise Daniel cites research showing our brains in later life actually have distinct advantages. He lists things like – Being able to resist acting on impulse Being able to deny gratification Being able to more easily get on with others Being able to make wise and thoughtful decisions. For reasons like this, the brainy brain expert insists that those entering retirement are just reaching their prime. Our thinking can even get better In fact, insists Daniel, some aspects of memory get better as we age. For instance, our ability to extract patterns and to make accurate predictions improves because we’ve had more experience. For this reason, he argues, if you need an X-ray you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one. Daniel concedes that brains slow down and get smaller over time. It’s a decline starting from about our mid-30s. So with age comes a slowing down at answering quiz questions or retrieving names. But at other forms of mental processing we can get better — and faster. For example, abstract thinking improves, reveals Daniel’s research. This is the kind of processing that enables mathematical ability, language and problem-solving. So, too, does practical intelligence – or ‘wisdom’. It’s the ability to assess situations and make the best responses. With your brain’s ability to spot patterns where others don’t, and to understand what’s likely to happen next. Discovery and learning are still possible Nor are those older as stuck in their ways as popular myth suggests. Neuroscientists speak of ‘plasticity’ – the ability, or not, for the brain to adapt and learn. A generation ago it was a ‘given’ among the scientific community that those over-60 had little hope of experiencing any significant remodelling of their brains. But new research tells a different story. It’s one where the brains of older adults are able to take great steps to adapt and learn. The only difference being that it simply takes a bit longer. This means there’s the potential to keep learning and discovering into our 90s and beyond. We just need to expect it to involve a little more concentration and take a little longer. All of which is perfectly summed up in the words of Daniel Levitin who says; ‘I’ve come to see ageing as not inevitably a period of decline and loss and irrelevance. But a period of potentially renewed engagement, energy and meaningful activities.’ So it is down to each of us to decide which story we will live by. The one that resigns us to imagined inevitable decay. Or the one that grabs each moment positively to make the rest of our lives the best of our lives. Living in the way God has made us with all the opportunities this offers. Bestselling books by Daniel Levitin include Successful Ageing: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives and The Changing Mind: A Neuroscientist’s Guide to Ageing Well. What insights, experiences or questions do you have about thinking and learning new things in your after-work years? Please share them here or on the AfterWorkNet Facebook community Peter Meadows Peter is AfterWorkNet’s Programme Director. He’s using his retirement to help churches, resource inter-church initiatives, enjoy his grandchildren, escape to Spain and to spend his kids’ inheritance.