(c) photo by Nathalie Schueller
There is a fascinating topic that keeps crossing my editor’s desk: neuroplasticity, which is the popular term for your brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. The scientific evidence on brain research now points to the surprising fact that our minds are designed to improve as we get older. That’s right – better watch out for the 60 year old start-up CEO with that wise, expansive brain, leaving the youngsters in the dust!
Wherever you are in your life’s circle, this is very good news: Your brain is the one organ in your body that will not squeak, pinch, hurt or outright deteriorate as you age, if you treat it right. In fact, your brain has the ability to significantly improve as you mature, which will have a huge impact on society and the way we run our businesses as soon as the 76 million baby boomers in this country realize that senior moments can – and should be – a thing from the past.
For the first part on my mini-series on neuroplasticity I recently sat down with accomplished author and international business consultant Michael J. Gelb to discuss the findings of his brand new book “Brain Power – Improve Your Mind as You Age”. Michael was still recovering from knee surgery (and a hip replacement two years prior) when we met in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton hotel in DC. Now turning 60, Michael himself has experienced the physical challenges that come with age. But when I asked him about Brain Power, his 13th book and “the most important I ever wrote” the author, whose previous books sold three million copies worldwide, practically jumped out of his seat.
Bettina Gordon: What exactly is neuroplasticity?
Michael Gelb: Neuro is the brain cell and plasticity means flexible, adaptable, and changeable. To understand neuroplasticity we need to recognize what the old paradigm was that we might call ‘neuro static’. Until recently the scientific establishment had a consensus that the brain couldn’t change, and that the brain is pretty well finished developing in childhood, and starts to decline after age 30. You might even call it ‘neuro necrotic’ because it was believed that your brain cells just die relentlessly and there was no hope of regeneration or developing new patterns of connection. It was believed by earnest, thoughtful scientists that this was the nature of our brains.
Bettina: What changed?
Michael: These assumptions have been overturned largely because we now have the technology to map your brain. We have MRI’s and brain scans so we can watch people as they learn new things. We can look at a person’s brain when he learns a new task, like learning how to juggle. You practice juggling for 15 minutes as an adult and we can watch your brain form new connections.
Bettina: And how significant is the finding that my brain forms new neuro connections?
Michael: It’s revolutionary because it is infallible proof that our brains can get better with age. We can now watch the brain grow and adapt and change and improve. Lots of studies have now been done on how to strengthen brain connections, and how to even generate new brain cells. There is another new word ’neurogenesis’; we used to believe it was not possible for grown-ups to generate new brain cells – but it turns out it is. Of course some cells do die as we get older, but we have more than 100 billion cells and use only a fraction of them. We’re underutilizing our mental capacity and can develop much more of our potential and our abilities as we age.
Bettina: The science of strengthening your brain at any age has developed within the last couple of decades, but only now it’s making its way into mainstream’s consciousness?
Michael: Yes, that is why I wrote this book. Many intelligent people read the science section of the newspaper and they’ve heard of neuroplasticity, but they haven’t in any way integrated it into their own life. They grew up believing the neuro static notion and that the brain is getting older. Attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy and that’s surely one of the reasons it took so long to become a more popular topic.
The impact of science on neuroplasticity is outstanding. There are clinicians all over the world that are applying neuroplasticity to do things that seemed impossible, like helping people who have never been able to hear recruit part of the brain in order to hear again, see again, or speak. They help people recover functions we used to think were lost forever. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy and it doesn’t mean that anybody who has a problem will magically be cured, because there’s a tremendous amount of discipline and work involved. But it can be done.
Bettina: A brain can improve at really any age?
Michael: Yes, any age. The issue is not “do we have the capacity?” The issue is that we get stuck in limiting habits. We do the same neuro muscular patterns over and over again, as we do the same movements over and over. We think the same thoughts, because we tend to be dominated by unconscious automatic brain patterns. So we’re instinctively more concerned with our survival, safety, esteem and ego rather than with our creativity, vision and transformation.
So in order to change that and develop our untapped brain capacity, it needs a conscious intervention. If you leave your brain unattended by consciousness you will not improve your brain and it will get worse because you do the same thing you are used to doing, and you won’t learn new things and eventually become limited. Some people are on automatic pilot. The good news is you can turn this around at any age, as long as you don’t already have any dementia. There was a study done on people who are 100 years old learning new things and significantly improving their scores on memory tests.
Bettina: But many of our elders already struggle with dementia or other forms of deterioration of the mind.
Michael: It does not have to be like that. My book is of huge benefit for all the people who do not want to experience any form of dementia in their later years, and who are willing to form good habits now. Look, I’m aware that parts of us do wear out as we get older. I had a knee replacement and a hip replacement, because I used them a lot and they wore out. But the good news is that is not how our brain works! If you use it a lot it doesn’t wear out, it gets better.
Bettina: Then let’s talk about the different ways to prevent dementia and improve the brain!
Michael: It’s been found that activities that challenge the mind actually help to prevent dementia. People who play chess, play bridge or learn new languages, are less likely to get dementia. You can compare it to going to the gym and lifting weights or getting on the exercise bike – you are building your strength and your cardiovascular abilities so that you’re healthier and stronger and keep more muscle tone with less bone loss. When you learn new things you’re strengthening your brain by making new neuromuscular connections and new synaptic connections – new pathways of your brain – so you’re getting your brain functioning in a more lively way. And the more parts of your brain that are working and being challenged and awakened, the healthier and sharper your brain seems to be. Your brain likes to be stimulated.
Bettina: Are people with a more positive outlook on aging more apt to improve their brain, or does general attitude towards life not matter that much?
Michael: Well, there was a study of 650 subjects; those with a negative attitude toward aging, and those with a positive attitude toward aging. The positive attitude group outlived the negative group by an average of 7 ½ years. I’m interested in longevity PLUS improvement. I don’t want you to just live longer, with no memory, no joy, and no pleasure. This book is about living longer and more intelligently and improving your mind as you get older, really.
My expertise is in the educational elements of the new paradigm. In other words, what are the practical, simple, research-validated things that the average person can do to prevent dementia and improve their minds as they get older? It’s about fundamentally shifting your mindset about getting older so that you look forward to deepening your wisdom. My favorite line is “aging well is the supreme expression of wisdom”. I don’t think we should use the phrase “anti-aging” any longer but rather talk about aging gracefully, aging intelligently, aging wisely; that’s what this book is about.
Bettina: Attitude is obviously key. How else can I change my brain’s circuitry?
Michael: Multiple studies show that people who keep a gratitude journal improve their brain’s circuitry. It’s simple things, like writing down something you’re grateful for and feeling grateful for these things for just five minutes each day. These people have a much better perceived sense of well-being over the course of however long they keep the gratitude journal. They also show improvements in their immune function, which is why they may live longer. Same thing with forgiveness, which is harder for a lot of people. Humor is an amazing tool and also strengthens the immune system, and keeps your mind alive and sharp. If you are witty you are making new connections with your mind. Laughing is therapeutic; you’re deepening your respiration and stimulating your endorphins. Learning something new, like a new language, and studying for 15 minutes per day makes a huge difference in your brain’s functionality.
Bettina: 15 minutes a day is all?
Michael: Yes, that’s not too much to ask to keep your brain alive, is it?! Learning something new seems a key factor. Regular exercise is important as well, because your brain is 2% of your body’s weight but it uses 20% of your body’s oxygen. So walking, strength training or stretching is paramount, a minimum of 20 minutes to an hour a day would be best. Also working on your balance is key. People are often losing their balance when they get older. It’s a missing link in a lot of fitness programs, so we teach you how to do it in the book. We give people a lot of advice on how to start and maintain a fitness program because it’s something I’m very passionate about. The next key point of course is diet and nutrition. In the book we suggest simple things that everybody can do, like drinking plenty of water, eating breakfast, eliminating all junk from your diet, no more trans fats, no excess sugar, that kind of thing. In short, don’t eat toxic crap!
And watch those high glycemic carbohydrates. Some people digest them better than others, but if you cut calories and notice you’re still gaining weight it’s probably the effect of carbohydrates on your metabolism and on your hormonal balance, or rather, imbalance. There are supplements that I recommend as well to improve your brain function. Bottom line is that if you decide you want to feel good, you’ll start making better choices. Among the anti-oxidants that are “rust proofers” are, in moderation, red wine with dinner, coffee in the morning and high-quality dark chocolate once a day, for example. They are all high in anti-oxidants and really good for you.
Michael Gelb: Aging well is the supreme expression of wisdom. If you want to age well, then nurture your wisdom by studying the lives of great men and women from all walks of life who continued to be productive and fulfilled in their later years.
Bettina: How about stimulating your creativity and your senses?
Michael: Absolutely, I call it the brain enhancing environment. Peel yourself away from those nasty TV shows and listen to good music instead, or go outside for a walk in nature. We need to consciously create a positive, enriching, stimulating environment, instead of the stupor many people find themselves in almost automatically, whether by using drugs, alcohol or TV as their mode of relaxation.
Getting enough rest is also important. Just as we are chronically dehydrated, we are chronically rest deprived. So getting eight hours of sleep, taking a nap, and learning to meditate are some of the absolute best things to do. We included a lot of guidance on sleeping well, and 20 minutes of meditation in our book. Our book comes with a downloadable Brain Sync Audio program to balance your brain hemispheres and optimize mental performance, created by my co-author. I’m also very excited about our research because of its implication on society: if we could get millions of people doing the exercises in this book, the savings would be phenomenal. It would literally save billions of dollars in healthcare.
Bettina: What is the impact in the business world?
Michael: There is absolutely no reason anymore, to retire a 65 year old who has improved with age! Or to make it difficult for a 50 year old to find a new job, because he’s “old news”. Wrong! With this knowledge, every employer can now make a more informed decision. They would be crazy to let go of their wisest and most experienced people who only get smarter with age. An older employee who consciously improves can be the biggest asset for a company and quite easily outperform younger people.
Bettina: Can and will these scientific findings now significantly shift the way that we look at old people here in America so that we start to revere our elders and treat them with respect?
Michael: Well that’s my intention, which added a new dimension to my sense of purpose. If television programs or public speakers said about women or ethnic minorities what is said about old people they would be vilified or even put in jail for discrimination, but people continue to slander people over the age of 55 as if they are some sort of pathetic wretches. Your brain’s functionality has less to do with age than your long-term habits. So put Mozart on your computer, start playing chess, stop eating crap every day, meet new people; and of course, read our book!