"You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body" - Roman poet Juvenal
The invention of the microscope and then the electron microscope has revealed the brain to be very complex with billions of specialised nerve cells, called neurons. Each one of the one hundred billion neurons in our brains has about 5,000 connections to other neurons. That's 5 followed by fourteen zero's!
In The Mature Mind, Professor Gene Cohen stated that "one of the most important findings of brain research is that much of the decline in mental abilities formerly associated with ageing is not caused by ageing per se but by specific diseases." When we age healthily our brain continues to function and we can go on growing and learning throughout our lives. Contrary to what we have been told in the past, new research is finding that our brains are not only amazingly complex but amazingly adaptable.
New discoveries about the ageing brain
- Neural plasticity
- Maturation of our emotional circuitry
- Bilateral activity
The idea that the brain physically changes as a result of learning emerged in the mid-1960's from experiments conducted by Marion Diamond, Professor of Anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Diamond found that when rats were placed in a stimulating environment, the parts of their brains involved in learning actually grew! This effect was independent of the age of the rats, with rats the equivalent of 90 year old humans showing the same improvement. More recent trials using magnetic resonance scanning techniques have found similar changes in the human brain.
In a 1999 study using macaque monkeys, it was shown that cells generated in the hippocampus area of the brain can migrate to the cortex, the centre of the mind's ability to reason and think. Once they arrive they "plug in" and become a new part of the brains central circuitry. This is effectively a natural regenerative mechanism. Exercise has been shown to encourage new brain cells to form. These changes in the brain are managed to keep everything in a state of "dynamic equilibrium". However, to move our brain from one level of stable equilibrium to another requires learning, in order to establish new neuronal pathways in the brain. Exercise alone is not enough but rather it is the combination of physical effort and mental effort that can help us retain brain function as we age.
The limbic system is a set of structures at the base of the brain that are involved in many of our emotions and motivations, particularly those that are related to survival. Many more nerve fibres run from the limbic system to the cortex than from the cortex back to the limbic system. This means that emotions can easily overwhelm and overrule our thinking. Hence advice such as "count to ten before losing your temper". Recent studies have shown that activity in the limbic system decreases with age, specifically in response to negative emotions such as fear, anger and hatred. Researchers found that, contrary to expectations, most older people experience less intense negative emotions, pay less attention to negative than to positive emotional stimuli and are less likely to remember negative than positive emotional events.
Scientists from Duke University have found that older adults are more likely to engage the pre-frontal cortex in both left and right hemispheres of the brain when recalling words than younger people. This is considered to be an adaptive mechanism which allows the older brain to compensate. It is found in higher performing older adults.
Engagement in moderate and vigorous physical activities has been found to be protective against the decline in verbal fluency and word recall that is often associated with growing older. Brain scans of 638 people past the age of retirement, conducted by Edinburgh University, showed those who were most physically active had the least shrinkage in the area known as the hippocampus - the part of the brain that governs memory and is particularly susceptible to Alzeimher's disease. Researchers suggest that Ideally you should aim to walk briskly for forty minutes at least three times per week. Other recommendations intended to reduce the risk of cognitive decline include eating a healthy diet, getting sufficient sleep and reducing stress. We will look at these last two interventions in our next two issues.
In this section I would like to highlight two institutions devoted to learning in older people - one highly academic and selective and one offering a broad range of courses and activities which require no formal qualifications.
Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement
While I was in America on my Churchill Fellowship, I had the privilege of visiting Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement (HILR), which was established in 1997 to provide educational opportunities for retired people. An important point to remember about HILR is that it is at Harvard, probably the most highly regarded university in the world. To teach at Harvard is considered an honour and a privilege. All the members pay $375 a year to join and no one can join without first being vetted. Most but not all of the members are Harvard graduates and many have postgraduate degrees. The selection criteria though are more concerned with commitment both to learn and to contribute to the group learning experience. While the courses contain no formal element of assessment, members are given prior reading that is often made available on the internet. The two cornerstones of HILR are peer learning and active participation. Study Group Leaders, all of whom are active members, create and conduct HILR courses in a seminar format. No one is allowed to become a Study Group Leader until they have spent at least two semesters at the Institute.
Courses are normally advertised in May with a closing date in mid-July. Active members of HILR are strongly encouraged to enrol in a minimum of two and a maximum of three courses each semester. Members are assigned their first or second choices based on available space (the Institute has its own building but the lecture rooms are quite small). Of course many members ask for courses where they can be with their friends, and HILR tries to accommodate them as much as possible, although this means manually reassigning members after the computer has completed the matching process. As well as membership entitling them to attend lectures in the Institute, members are also permitted to sit in on undergraduate lectures that might interest them, although it is made clear that they do not interrupt the lecturer, even if they might know more than they do! One of the most popular voluntary activities in the Institute is to provide English language practice for international students. The members are often well travelled as well as very well read and this must be very beneficial for the overseas students. One problem that the Institute has had to face is what to do when its members become infirm with age. When this happens they are invited to join as an Associate and can attend the special Friday morning series of lectures, workshops and performances.
To learn more about Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement click here.
Rothsay Education Centre
In 1959 a local JP (Justice of the Peace) who was also a college lecturer, researched the needs of the elderly in the town of Bedford, England and concluded that there was a need for a specialist centre to provide educational facilities as well as opportunities for individuals to contribute the skills and experiences gained over a lifetime. In 1977, with 164 students and eight courses, the Rothsay Education Centre was started.
The Centre had a decidedly rocky start with funding being offered and then withdrawn on at least two occasions. Eventually the students decided to try to "go it alone", becoming a registered charity and offering a new and wider range of courses. The County Council generously allowed them to retain the building they were in at a nominal rent.
Rothsay Education Centre today provides a diverse range of courses from Languages to Lip Reading, Painting to Pilates and Guitar to Geology to name but a few of the 200+ courses on offer. The Centre also organises a diverse range of activities and social events to indulge in, such as visits to places of interest, theatre trips, an annual holiday and a Quiz night. They also offer activities that cater to the physical aspect, such as Rambling. The wide curriculum and diverse range of experiences provided help to create new interests for the members, as well as expanding and building on their existing knowledge. With a café for the members and their guests, where lunch and snacks can be bought, there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy the company of like-minded people and make new friendships, as well as keeping the brain active.
To learn more about Rothsay Education Centre, click here
In this months article Michael shares his thoughts on a "day in the life" in retirement. Personally I always find it fascinating what other people get up to! Click here to read Michael's thoughts on his "typical" day.
This month Jeanette considers how to have a sense of purpose in retirement. Importantly she makes the point that the task of developing a sense of purpose is not necessarily a single insight but something that evolves over time. Click here to read Jeanette's article.
Reflections is intended to showcase short pieces of poetry or prose that reflect on our life experience. This month features a poem by my late friend and colleague, Philip Clarke. Here Phil reflects on finding our way in life. To read "The Road Ahead", by Philip Clarke, click here.