Knees hurt. Memory hiccups. Eyesight and hearing degenerate. I’ve interviewed people who can’t walk unassisted, who’re hooked up to oxygen tanks, who are being treated for cancer. But while those who work into their eighties and nineties face many different physical challenges, they share one attribute: excellent cognitive function. And as Judy Steed writes in the Toronto Star, “the harsh truth is that you can’t enjoy old age if you haven’t got the healthy brain to go with it.”
Steed draws upon yet more evidence of the brain’s plasticity in late life. “You can teach an old dog new tricks,” says Dr. Donald Stuss, a leading neuroscientist at Toronto’s Rotman Research Institute. “The brain can generate new neurons and more brain regions can be recruited, brought into play, to help us as we get older.” We already know that brains with Alzheimer’s-type abnormalities can work just fine if people draw on what neuroscientists at New York’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center have termed “cognitive reserve.” It’s there if we build it.
As with heart disease, the model is shifting to prevention: exercising our gray matter to grow more braincells and thus mitigate the effects of aging. One way is to stick with a challenging job. Sam Adelo’s position as a court interpreter, for example, gives him quite the neural workout. Whether at work or play, it’s a matter of pushing ourselves to seek new challenges and acquire new skills. A related article in the Star suggests, “Do things you’ve never done before – square-dancing, chess, bridge, tai-chi, yoga or sculpture. Learn how to set up a website. Take up a foreign language.” Try some of the appealingly odd “neurobic exercises” developed by Duke University neurobiologist Lawrence Katz to “activate underused nerve pathways.” Cognitive function isn’t genetically predetermined. Stay vertical. Or, if you share my couch potato tendencies, turn off the TV and reach for a book.