You asked, “What happens to my brain as I
get older? And how do I keep it sharp?” Today, I’m going to talk about how your
brain changes. Some things get worse, some things get better. But we’re also going
to talk about how it is that you can keep your brain sharp as you age. When I first started doing brain
research, one of the topical questions that kept coming up that people kept
asking me about was, “How do I keep my brain sharp? And as I age, what’s
happening to my brain that is natural and normal?” So, how do I know the
difference between what is pathological? When should I see a physician? Versus “How
can I make sure that I’m keeping my brain really sharp and active? And how do
I know if it’s normal?” So, I did about 3 years worth of research. I was on
multiple television shows. And then I I traveled all over the world on
stages telling organizations and people about what to expect from normal, healthy,
aging brains. As well as how to keep them sharp as you get older. So today, let’s
start with what changes about your brain and what you can expect in terms of the
natural and healthy aging brain process. One of the ways that I remember how it
is that brains change over time is what I call Mr. H Skimp. And I’ve made this
little acronym up. But the idea is is that mr. h skimp comes to visit. Now, the
H stands for hormones, the S stands for sensory, The K for knowledge, I for
intelligence, M for memory and P for physical ability. Let’s talk about the H
first. Mr. H skimp, the first H stands for hormones. As we age, our brain produces
and circulates different neural chemicals and different hormones that
are mediated through our brain. Those hormonal fluctuations of course create
things like andropause and menopause which has an effect on how the brain
operates. But it also includes things like different circadian rhythms.
Different sleep cycles. So some people will sometimes ask me, “Why is it that I
used to be able to sleep through the night? And now I find myself up at 3 a.m.
but I cannot stay awake at 3 p.m?” The difference in hormonal fluctuations
changes this. it changes your circadian rhythm. Your hormonal fluctuations which
of course means it changes a lot about how your brain is processing your day
and your time and your body. Your appetites as an
example, those start to change. So, our hormones really do change over
time as our brain ages. Mr. H Skimp comes to visit as our brains get older. And the
S stands for sensory receptors. Probably no surprise that the sensory receptors
in your body of which there are 5 senses right like sight, smell, touch,
taste. These change over time. And what we see is that these sensory receptors
change mostly toward dulling. And so what happens is is that the sensation that we
actually experience is less over time. And so, you probably have this experience
yourself where you don’t hear as well, you don’t taste as well. Now, the other
thing that happens is that the actual sensory receptors dull over time but
they also are less accurate. So, what ends up happening is that the actual signals
that get sent to the brain are then transferred but are interpreted
differently by the brain. And so what we see is not just sensory receptors
dulling but the brain’s ability to interpret that sensation. It gets worse
effectively over time. Next is when Mr. H Skimp comes to visit, knowledge, the K.
Knowledge changes over time as well. Now, what’s really amazing is that what we
know is as a healthy aging brain changes, knowledge becomes different. And so how
you both intake information and process information becomes different over time.
Now, things like reasoning, we know, financial reasoning, that starts to
decline. Decision-making actually slows. So, your ability to make a decision slows
as well. But also the things that you know are different. And so the way that
you know information starts to change. And the way that your neural networks
integrate information changes as well. Over time, what we also see is that the I, intelligence. Intelligence changes. And so, what we start to notice is that
things like fluid intelligence decreases but things like tacit intelligence
actually increase. And so, as you age, the normal healthy aging brain process is to
have intelligence actually be different. Things like decreased ability to reason
with numbers or with math. Decreased ability to reason with logic.
And what we also find is that new information is harder to assimilate into
existing intelligence networks. When Mr. H Skimp comes to visit, we also think
about the M, memory. The M stands for memory and the fact that memory does
naturally change over time. And so what we see is that because all memory is a
reconstruction, we actually see decreased accuracy in long-term memories. And so as
an example, when you remember something, what you are doing is accessing a neural
network that was practiced the last time you access that memory. Or said
differently, what you’re accessing is your neural network the last time you
thought about that. It is not in fact an accurate depiction of those events. So,
over time, your long-term memory does become less accurate. And as you’ve
probably experienced, so does your short-term memory. So, it becomes harder
to actually input new information into neural networks as we’ve found out. And
so our short-term memory also fails us. And this is why as we age, we can
remember something that happened to us when we were 22 but it’s really hard to
remember what we had for lunch yesterday, as an example. Finally, as Mr. H Skimp
comes to visit, we talk about the P or the physical changes that the brain
undergoes. Now, your brain is very largely gray matter which is the actual neurons.
White matter which are the fat that circulate those neurons or the neuronal
cells or axons. And a whole bunch of space in between. And so what we see is
that in fact both the white matter which is that fat… Those fat cells that help
conductance. That actually decreases your gray matter decreases. The number of
neurons you have actually decreases as well. However, that’s okay. Because when we
look at dementia or some of the diseases of aging brains, it’s really the white
matter that is critical. So, it’s the white matter that we want to preserve
which of course we’ll talk about later. The other thing we noticed is that in
the aging brain, there’s also a little bit more in the way of inflammation. Now,
this is natural and normal but it does decrease processing time and it
decreases conductance so that over time, it will take an older brain more time to
make a decision or to reason something out. Okay. So, we’ve talked about
Mr. H Skimp coming to visit and all the things that change over time that
maybe aren’t awesome. Let’s talk about what gets better with age. Because like a
fine wine, as brains age healthily and normally, a lot of things in fact do get
better. One of the first things that gets better is interpersonal skills and what
we call emotional intelligence. In fact, the aging or or normally aging brain
does get better at interpersonal skills; at emotional intelligence; at something
we call theory of mind or T-O-M. Which is the ability to project what someone else
might be thinking. They’re also aging brains better at using their mirror
neuron system and it’s exactly as it sounds. That system mirrors how other
neurons are firing in other people. And so that mirror neuron system actually
becomes much better at doing its work at much more robust in terms of its neural
networks. And so what we see is that over time; interpersonal skills ability to put
yourself in someone else’s shoes; ability frankly to get along with other people
improves and increases over time. What this really means is that as your
interpersonal and emotional skills get better you also become more sympathetic,
more empathetic and much more easy to understand what someone else might be
feeling or experiencing. And so the emotional centers also get much more
acute and much better at processing. As you age, another thing that improves is
what we consider to be cause and effect decision making as an example. So, this is
really one’s ability to predict one’s ability to anticipate what something is
going to create or cause. So, you know as an example different than have then a
baby might you know what happens if you throw a rock out of a window. Or you will
know what happens if you drive too fast. And so cause and consequence become much
more real and you have more neural networks for that. And you become much
better at predicting what’s likely to happen in certain scenarios. And so, cause
effect trajectory and predictions actually become much better over time
with the healthy aging brain. Now, one of the advantages of being really good at
cause and consequence and long-term predictions is
long-term bigger order thinking. And so, what we see is in the healthy aging
brain, your ability to think big picture becomes better; your ability to think
long-term becomes better and this improves something we call intuitive
thinking which is the ability to actually put two and two together or see
patterns in bigger order items; bigger order circumstances or contexts. And so,
as you age, the ability to actually look at the bigger picture and understand
what might be happening or what might happen in the future
improves over time. Also as you age, your attention actually will get better or at
least your attention to detail becomes more improved, more concise, more accurate.
So, wherever you started in the spectrum of detail-oriented versus big-picture
oriented, as we get older, we actually become both capable of looking at the
long-term bigger picture as well as more detailed. So, it’s almost as if you’re
polarized in that ability but you’re much more able then to actually pay
attention to some of the minutiae that maybe a younger brain would miss. The
healthy aging brain also gets better of course at accruing its experience and
understanding what knowledge is real wisdom. And so the older brain is
actually much better at dealing with things like ambiguity. Which can be very
uncomfortable for a younger brain and it’s much better at things like tacit
knowledge at knowing what it’s expertise are. So, the older brain knows what it’s
good at and knows what it’s not good at. And so, it also has a lot of knowledge
that’s encoded in neural networks that we consider to be tacit knowledge. Which
is knowledge that you know you know but you don’t know how to explain that you
know it. It’s things like being able to do up your your shoelace. You definitely
know how to do up your shoelaces. You just have a hard time sometimes
describing that. One of my favorite things about the natural healthy aging
brain is the fact that over time, you actually become wherever you started in
life happier and more optimistic. There’s a reason for that.
What we say in neuroscience is that negative emotions and negative memories,
they decay first. And so as you look to your past, you actually remember it
through what we often say is rose-colored glasses. The past as you
remember it is not necessarily the objective of occurrences
but is the rose-colored version of that. This has advantages though as we get
older because what it means is that if we assume that the past occurrences are
going to be like the future occurrences, then a very rose-colored past means a
much more optimistic brighter future. And so as we get older, wherever we started
in the world, however we started in our personality set, we actually get more
optimistic and happier. Things might be getting worse in our brain. Maybe in our
physical circumstance but in actual fact we get happier about it and more
optimistic about the future. Okay, so you asked the question “How does my brain
change? What can I expect? And how do I keep it sharp?” Well, there are a few
pieces of advice that the research would corroborate about what it is we can do
to make sure that our brain stays sharp. The first one is to stay social. I know
this seems fairly intuitive but it’s true that over time we often stick to
our existing friend sets. Our existing friend sets dwindle. And then we become
less social as we retire. We don’t go to work every day. So, what’s really
important is to find a social network and to stay social whatever that looks
like. That might mean joining the church again. That might mean going back and you
know, being part of a group or of a hobby. It might mean that you become a Walmart
greeter. But the idea is that if you are social, there are huge and vast neural
networks in your brain that will read that sociability like reward. And so
staying social is a really key component to keeping your brain sharp as you get
older. Another key piece of advice for keeping your brain sharp as you age is
to stay physically active. Now, that’s a challenge for many as joints get older
and as muscles and ligaments start to become a little bit harder to move. It
doesn’t need to be really rigorous. It just needs to be something every day. So,
if every day you can make sure that you move a little bit. What we say in
neuroscience is that movement is like magic to the brain. And what it does is
it actually activates knowledge learning and memory networks. So, a little bit of
movement actually increases your memory both short-term and long-term. Another
piece of advice for keeping your brain sharp as you get older is to not quit
your job just yet. What we’ve shown and what the research
shows is that people who retire too young actually age faster and they age
cognitively much faster. And so what we see (And this is really great news) is
that baby boomers as an example are starting to do work into their older
years they’re not retiring as soon partly because they are the healthiest
wealthiest happiest generation to have ever lived. But what that actually allows
is a decrease a slowing of cognitive aging. So, if you want to keep your brain
sharp, consider doing your job but maybe 2 days a week or 3 days a week.
Maybe don’t retire just yet. Another key piece of advice is to keep learning.
Whatever that means for you. Now, some people will ask me after I give a talk
like this they’ll say, “So, I do my crossword every day. I do Sudoku.” Is
that enough? The answer is probably no unfortunately. What happens is over time,
as you get really good at doing crosswords or Sudoku, you actually aren’t
learning anymore. And so what happens is is that over time that becomes something
that is totally cemented into your neural networks. Instead, you should be
doing something that frankly feels a little uncomfortable and it’s sort of
hard. And so, as a really good example this might be when you start traveling
more and learning new cities. When you start to learn a new language. Go and
pick up your real estate license. I’ve had those questions before and they’re
all really great examples of ways to continue to learn. Just remember that
learning almost like going to the gym. If you don’t feel the burn then you’re not
actually learning. It’s something you already know. Another thing that the
research shows is that if you pick up a hobby, you will keep your brain a lot
more active. And so, keeping your brain sharp over time is to engage in hobbies
you’ve always liked or to find new ones. Effectively what you’re doing is you’re
keeping your brain guessing. You’re keeping your brain active and this will
help you have fun while you continue to learn. Another piece of advice from the
research is the notion that as we get older, we should continue to give back.
Definitely join a charity, whatever it is. But this will help with this sense, a
general sense of feeling optimistic; a feeling positive about the world.
And one of the ways that the research shows you should do this is as an
example to mentor youth. So, if what you do is you find somebody who is in your
same industry; maybe it’s something you knew really well, you knew how to do
really well, you were an expert in some field, this might be your opportunity to
take that knowledge and hand it over to the younger generation and so if you can
stay active in your field of expertise and or with others you are effectively
giving back which we know increases your overall general positive effect and
therefore how sharp your brain stays. Another thing that the research shows is
that you should continue to challenge yourself to try new things. And what this
is really about is not letting yourself fall into a very consistent routine that
doesn’t have any spontaneity in it. And so, what you should notice is if you’re
starting to get into a routine that is a little Tuesday that’s 20 years old,
you might think about how you can switch that up. What you can challenge yourself
to do. Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and be a little more
spontaneous because that spontaneity lays down new neural networks and really
keeps your brain guessing and what that does just like learning picking up a
hobby mentoring people, it helps with neural plasticity. And what we are trying
to do is increase how neural plastic your brain is on an ongoing basis. So,
make sure that you’re not in too staid of a routine. Definitely challenge
yourself to be as spontaneous as possible. The research also shows that if
we want to keep our brain sharp as we age, it’s really important to stay
spiritually active. Whatever that means for you. And so this is when it’s a
really good time to go back to church or temple or synagogue or mosque and to
stay as spiritually active as you can. If that’s not religion at all, whatever it
means for you. The point is is that your spiritual self is actually feeding your
personality and your happiness and so what all the research shows is that
those who are more hopeful are actually more happy over time. If you want to keep
your brain sharp, another key piece of advice is to make sure to eat properly
and maintain your proper nutrition as you get older. Now, what we see is that a
lot of people as they retire, they end up in a different routine.
Sometimes they’re empty-nesters, sometimes they live alone. If any of
these things are true, we find often that nutrition can sometimes go downhill. You
might start to skip meals. You might start to feel like it really you know,
what you eat doesn’t matter as much. The opposite is true. That couldn’t be
further from the truth. What we want you to do is to continue to
make sure that you’re getting all the proper nutrition in your day that you’re
eating fairly consistently. And that you’re getting enough food. Because this
of course is important for how your brain functions. Finally, what’s really
important as you age if you want to keep your brain as sharp as possible is to
really try to enjoy life. Find ways to destress. Find ways to have
humor in your life. There’s a whole body of research that points out that the
more humorous you can find things, the happier you are and the less stressed
you are. And so, the more that you can try to de-stress the better off. What we
notice as an example through the research is that anxiety in older people
is often mislabeled. It’s actually not taken as anxiety. It’s taken as dementia
or as some other unhealthy or pathological brain states. So, really
managing your stress proactively and trying to enjoy things however that
looks for you is really important for having your brain properly function and
making sure that you’re staying as sharp as you can through your older years. As a
final word, as you look toward keeping your brain as sharp as possible as you
age, one of the key pieces to remember is that your brain does change over time.
And that’s okay. In fact, if you follow some of these pieces of research-based advice,
what we know is you do not have to get sick. The brain does not have to end up
in dementia or with Alzheimer’s or otherwise pathologized over time. Your
brain will change, it’s a completely natural thing. But it does get worse
somehow and it does get better in many ways. And so keeping active and taking
advice from all of these key pieces of research will really help in keeping
your brain as sharp as possible over time. Thank you for watching. I hope you
found this helpful. I’d love to know in the comments below what your favorite
piece of advice or what your favorite insight was.
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