~David Dennett, “Consciousness Explained”
And even if you don’t eat your brain, you can let it atrophy if you’re not careful. Here are ways to keep it active and growing throughout your lifespan.
1. MYTH: Once you’re born, all you can look forward to is a long and steady loss of brain cells (aka neurons).
REALITY: “Stem” cells in the human brain can create new neurons indefinitely, and relatively idle neurons will extend their branches to carry signals to and from other neurons indefinitely, under the proper circumstances.
2. MYTH: We can’t get smarter as we age.
REALITY: Mice (are we like mice..? you be the judge) in an enriched environment, with interesting toys and playmates, showed an increase in 4000 new neurons in the hippocampus (crucial to memory and learning) compared to 2400 in the control group with no toys or playmates. And older mice’s brains also got bigger and better quickly! (Diamond and Rosenzweig, Elizabeth Gould, Princeton)
3. MYTH: Creativity diminishes with age.
REALITY: According to Ralph Warner, author of “Get a Life: You Don’t Need a Million to Retire Well,” “older artists often do well, commonly experiencing a sustained burst of exciting creativity after 65.”
4. MYTH: There isn’t much you can do to avoid Alzheimer’s.
REALITY: According to David Snowden, Ph.D., “Aging with Grace,” hardworking brains (the ones that get used in learning new things all during life) do well because their stimulated cells branch frequently, resulting in millions of new connections (synapses) so the brain actually becomes larger. A larger brain can cope better with the effects of brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s and strokes. Theoretically it has more active tissue, and therefore a greater number of ways to work around diseased or damaged areas.
5. MYTH: What you’ve got, is all you’ll ever get.
REALITY: According to Paul Tallal, Rutgers University neuroscientist, “You create your brain from the input you get,” i.e., intellectual stimulation strengthens the brain because in the normal course of living, our brains constantly reorganize themselves, which is called “neuroplasticity.” And neuroplasticity speeds up with the amount and complexity of the new information our brains receive.
6. MYTH: As you age, it’s too hard to learn new things, so stick with what you already know.
REALITY: According to Arnold Scheibel, head of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, the brain’s axons and dendrites (which send and receive messages) grow fastest with new material. “The important thing is to be actively involved in areas unfamiliar to you,” say Golden and Tsiaras, in “Building a Better Brain.” “Anything that is intellectually challenging can probably serve as a kind of stimulus for dendritic growth, which means it adds to the computational reserves in your brain.” Sounds to me like building a new hard drive, yes?
7. MYTH: Watching the Discovery Channel suffices for stimulation.
REALITY: Dr. Robert Friedland reports that adults over age 70 with brain-stimulating hobbies were two and a half times less likely to suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s later in life than were those whose main leisure activity was watching TV.
8. MYTH: In order to stimulate and grow the brain, you must engage in formal schooling.
REALITY: According to Warner, traditional academic subjects aren’t the only answer. The key is to find something both new and challenging to you. “Thus a Latin professor,” writes Warner, “might do better to learn how to prune fruit trees, line her car’s brakes or even solve difficult jigsaw puzzles than to write a scholarly essay parsing Cicero’s rhetoric.”
9. MYTH: I can ignore it for a while and it will still be there when I get back.
REALITY: Not! According to neurologist Oliver Sacks, the brain uses a lot of energy and blood, something we can’t “afford” to no purpose. If neurons dedicated to perform a given skill are not being used, they’ll either atrophy or be co-opted to some other function.
10. MYTH: Intellectual stimulation is enough.
REALITY: According to Marion Diamond, aerobic exercise, such as swimming and jogging, may be especially beneficial to brain function in aging people, because it tends to keep blood vessels in better shape. And according to the Salk Institute study, mice that exercised regularly on a running wheel grew twice as many new brain cells (again, in the hippocampus) as other mice.