Most of us were taught that the brain deteriorates as it ages…yes? We were even given statistics – the brain loses 1 million cells a day until we die. It was all pretty grim for those over 50. But hold on…we knew a few people who were old but great didn’t we? Einstein, Mandela, Churchill and even my granddad actually. About 20 years ago I was lucky enough to attend a three day workshop for 300 people led by W Edward Deming – the guy who introduced quality to Japan after the war; he was 93 at the time. He never missed a beat on that workshop and was coherent right up to his death a few years later. If these people had lost so many brain cells – how were they functioning so well?
Recently the truth has emerged. Firstly, we start with enormous numbers of cells (between 100 and 200 billion) which can be connected to each other in thousands of different ways. Imagine that number – scientists are fond of comparing this figure to the number of stars in the galaxy; it is that huge. Every one of these thousands of connections creates a thought and wires our brain for better understanding. Loss of brain cells is not the major we used to think it was years ago. It is the amount and strength in our wiring that makes a difference (‘use it or lose it’). The brain is plastic (it changes) and this wiring weaves new thoughts and memories from our experience, building a level of understanding unavailable to younger people. It isn’t until we are about 45 that our brain has enough emotional, cognitive and ethical connections to power up and become a sort of super internet highway which some call wisdom.
Secondly, recent research shows that the brain can give birth to new brain cells. It doesn’t do it in the same way that cells are created in the rest of the body – which is why experts were confused! It turns stem cells from deep in the brain into neurons (brain cells). Roughly 700 a day apparently, so even if we do lose 1 million cells a day (and that may be only those who are failing to work their brains enough)the 700 will go to the place they are needed and combine with this super internet highway that is your aging brain.
If anyone ever suggests that your brain is deteriorating with age – you can now deny that absolutely. It may be getting worse because you aren’t using it enough, but deterioration of its function is not inevitable. Do not confuse dementia with age either. Dementia is not an inevitable aspect of ageing; Even where dementia is genetically inherited, there is hope; it is a disease which, for most of us, can be improved by lifestyle factors like food, drugs and lack of exercise of the body and brain. Research is advancing and there is much that can be done to manage functionality even when physical symptoms are present.
How to start building? Learn about your brain and its potential – take it seriously. Join the Neurological Foundation of NZ where amazing research into the brain is advancing, you will hear about this through their newsletters and free seminars. Come to our Wiring Warrior inspiration and information events. Details of these will be published under 'Events'
Above all, decide to build a better brain as you get older – and know that you can!