The Third Third

The New Senior Moment

Going back to school makes sense. Especially if you learned the wrong stuff the first time. Really. And it can change the way we look at the world, indeed, the way the world looks at us. For example: somewhere along the line, in the sixties and the seventies, we were taught that the adult brain is a fairly static organ that, as part of the inexorable aging process, begins to deteriorate. A rather negative outcome. It turns out this simply isn’t true. According to Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., author of *The Mature Mind* and *The Creative Age*, who spoke recently at the Center for Brain Health ( in Dallas, scientific research has shown that brain function is instead a very elastic process which, given an appropriately challenging and stimulating environment, generates creative new ways of thinking beginning in middle age and well into advanced age. This relatively new analysis certainly embraces some potential. Lots of potential, according to Dr. Cohen, who heads the Center for Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University (, and reports that, contrary to what we learned in health or science classes 45 years ago, brain cells continue to form throughout life, and connections from one part of the brain to another (synapses) can be increased exponentially with the appropriate stimulation. This data evokes action plans on several levels, most notably vis-à-vis the whole of the aging population and how it should be regarded for policy considerations (housing, community development, social interaction, impact in the work force, potential as volunteers, etc.), and by each individual adult who can, by engaging in mental challenges and seeking out stimulating, more social environments, contribute indefinitely to his or her quality of life and that of the community. There’s more good news. Not only can we still think, but aging also lets us think differently. If we don’t have to believe our brains are deteriorating, we can better value our experience and apply it more aggressively -- a process Cohen calls “practical creativity.” After mid-life, he says, we are also psychologically more liberated and thus likely to hear (and listen to) that inner voice asking “If not now, when?” “What’s the worst that can happen?” and “What can they do to me?” We’re willing to try something new. Again, this is all because, properly nurtured, the brain actually continues to work with advancing age. It also works in new ways. There is, for example, better integration of the brain’s two hemispheres, the verbal right brain and the visual left, giving the mature mind a kind of all-wheel drive that is more comfortable with ambiguity and more emotionally stable. Wisdom, anyone? So what, exactly, constitutes mental challenge and environmental stimulation? The intensity of the requirements will differ from person to person, but leisure activities that have been shown to have a positive impact include: dancing, playing board and card games, playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, and reading. Studies show that physical exercise (cardiovascular exercise, in particular) is equally important in continued brain development, and that a healthy and balanced diet plays a role, too, of course. A sense of mastery – over a new task, a new language, computer skills, with a musical instrument, or in a work or volunteer setting -- evokes a sense of control which has been shown to boost the immune system and have dramatically positive effects on one’s health. Finally, strong social networks are key to brain and body health and staving off loneliness. So, take a course. Learn something new. It might make a huge difference in how you think. . . about life.
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