The, seemingly constant, flow of bad news about aging bodies and brains can be depressing. On this site alone I’ve read many chilling facts and statistics on matters impacting our aging population. The prevalence of depression, the frequency and potentially dire consequences of falls and how the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s or a related dementia increases exponentially as we age into our “senior” years, are just some examples that spring quickly to mind.
So, it was with great interest that I listened to a radio interview with Dr. Brynne Winegard on CBC’s Fresh Air that began by posing the intriquing question “are our older brains a problem to be managed, or an asset?”. Dr. Winegard is a Canadian professor, consultant, speaker and business commentator. A specialist in neuromarketing, Dr. Winegard combines her two fields of study: neuroscience and marketing.
Dr. Winegard confirmed what we all now know: our brains are aging and “changing” over time. She then went on to say that these changes bring both disadvantages and advantages. After listing some of the reasons why our memories may deteriorate, including loss of neurons, lack of mylenization and reduced plasticity, she moved on to those seldom-discussed advantages of aging.
Dr. Winegard listed three key benefits of the aging brain:
First, an aging brain is more emotionally intelligent. Our ability to sympathize and empathize increases as we age.
Second, the brain’s functional reorganizational skills become stronger. The brain learns to compensate for what it’s not doing well anymore. The brain “knows” when it is tripping up or missing a beat and draws on other areas of the brain to compensate.
Third, an older brain is a wiser brain. Tacit and expert knowledge accumlates over the years and is independent of our I.Q.
The discussion concluded with a talk on the risks inherent in retirement and offered some information on what we should be doing to keep our brains healthy. Good nutrition/low inflammation diet, exercise and mental workouts are essential. Dr. Winegard noted that just as with physical workouts, the brain needs to “feel the burn”. That is, you should be engaging in activities outside your comfort zone that are frustrating and uncomfortable. Knitting and Suduko (two of my personal favourites) are apparently not enough.
I felt a little more optimistic after hearing what Dr. Winegard had to say. If you’re looking for a little good news on aging, you can find the interview here.
Thanks for reading.