Your Amazing, Aging Brain

This is the last of four posts about all the cool things going on in your aging brain. 

Ten years ago, Sister Bernadette died of a massive heart attack at the age of eighty-five, after a lifetime of academic achievement and renowned intellect. Right up to the end, she aced any cognitive test the researchers could throw at her. She had arranged to donate her brain to science, and when they took a look under the hood (sorry, couldn’t resist!) what they saw changed brain science forever.

In spite of her brilliance, Sister B was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. 

After this discovery, the concept of “cognitive reserve” gained traction. It seems you might be able to build up your brain so that, if and when you get dementia, its effects will be diminished or delayed until you have time to die of something else. If you do die of dementia, having good CR might result in a shorter period of decline. Steeper, but shorter. Once it hits, it’s over quickly. Preferable, when you think about it.

How can you build up cognitive reserve? Exercise, for one.

Two more factors for staving off dementia are the attainment of more education rather than less, and the performance of a more complex occupation throughout one’s life (i.e. one dealing with humans) rather than less (i.e. repetitive motion on an assembly line).  Did you ever think that by encouraging our kids to continue into higher education, we might be saving them from dementia later in life?

Another way to build up resistance to dementia is to encourage your brain to regenerate. Remember, years ago, we were told that brain cells were finite in number; they could only die off, not grow? Wrong.

It’s been proven beyond doubt that the brain regenerates itself, giving birth to new brain cells in the area responsible for memory and cognitive ability.

Again, the best way to get your brain to create those new cells is exercise. Yep. You needed incentive for that New Year’s resolution? There you go. Cognitive reserve and fresh brain cells. But there are several other things you can do to encourage your brain to get generating.

    • Focus on a task that’s highly complex (like writing these last four columns. Dang.)
    • Focus on a specific goal (like your NY resolutions.)

Together, building cognitive reserve and birthing new brain cells would seem to give you a significant hedge against deterioration in the brain at any age, but wait! There’s more. Keeping your brain toned might be as pleasant and simple as:

    • Hanging out with friends, and
    • Hearing positive things about aging. (No, I did not pay them to say this, but yes, it seems as if this might be a good reason to visit Any Shiny Thing.)

According to Barbara Strauch, from whose book I’m quoting, “There’s increasing evidence that being with other humans helps tone our brains’ dendrites.”

But not just any humans. You want to be around NICE humans, because mirror neurons in our brains make emotions contagious! We not only feel the joy and pain of others, we adopt their moods. And, according to researcher Barbara Levy, our moods are surprisingly important to our brains. Levy found that the memories of older people improved after simply seeing positive words about aging.

So if you needed motivation for changes in 2013, I hope I’ve provided it.

And I know Christmas is over, but here’s a little gift anyway: Marc and Angel’s 7 Things You Will Smile About When You’re Older.

The Secret Life of the Grown-Up BrainThanks a million to Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain, without which I would not have been able to share all this fantastic information. Believe me, I’ve only scratched the surface. Her book is fun, easy, enjoyable, and written in a conversational tone that makes you feel you’re following a friendly scientist through the halls of research, mouth agape in delight at all the new things you’re learning. I recommend it.

Next week, we’re going to take a break. Do something silly and simple. Maybe I’ll riff on family drama and how much I hate the holidays. Or I might just indulge my grandmotherly heart and post pix of my adorable grandbabies. Whatever we do, I wish you health and happiness. Happy New Year, my dear, funny, kind, happy, smart friends.


  1. Susan in TX says

    Inspiring and validating post. Thanks for this great series of posts and the time you took to bring them to us. Looking forward to silly. 😀

  2. says

    There’s an fascinating long-term study of aging pilots being done at Stanford University. The scientist in charge always says, “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” By this she means that the brain–as well as all the other organs–need a good supply of oxygen and nutrients to keep working well. Exercise is vital, yet a sizable percentage of people polled recently said that they had gotten no exercise in the previous month.

    • says

      I was at my doctor’s office recently, Madeleine, and they asked if I exercised. I said while at work, I walk about 5 miles a day and climb about 15-20 flights of stairs while babysitting my grandkids. They said, no, that doesn’t count. We mean, do you exercise OUTSIDE of the workplace? Pfffft!

  3. says

    Thank you for such a positive and inspirational post. It looks like I am doing all the right things, but damn, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. You made me feel better about always signing up for the hard stuff. I also liked the “7 things” link!

  4. says

    Good to know, Lynne. I have so many things left to do in my life, it’s encouraging to realize that I can tease my brain into regeneration. I hope you have a wonderful New Year, blessed with good health, happiness and a peaceful heart.

  5. Shelley Molnar says

    Wonderful post. And how great to stumble upon a blog written for those over 50 that isn’t about financial services!

  6. says

    Such great stuff and all of it makes infinite sense. I can’t stand being around people who say things like, “It sucks getting old.” My brain is in high gear and I’m going to make sure it continues that way. Nothing makes me more distressed than seeing how memory loss has affected my mom. I’d include advice here about eating a healthy diet as well and getting regular exercise and STRETCHING! There is still so much to learn. Have you heard of MOOCs? Massive Open Online Courses – most are free. I’m starting one in January on Infographics. Never stop learning!


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