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How to Boost Your Brain Cells: Recent Research Results & Tips



By Nancy Merz Nordstrom and Jon F. Merz


A recent AARP study showed that over 90% of adults, age 50 and older planned to continue learning. Why? For three simple reasons: they want to know what’s going on in the world, they want to continue their personal/spiritual growth, and because they have so much fun learning about something new.

This study shows that we’re not going to abandon our ability and desire to learn just because we’re no longer working full-time. We understand that lifelong learning is vital to keeping ourselves active and involved in life.

The New Research

Is lifelong learning really critical to remaining healthy and active? You bet. Consider this: one of the biggest revelations to come out of the 1990s (a decade of pioneering brain research) was that the human brain undergoes significant physiological change when exposed to new learning and new experiences.
Research undertaken at Harvard, Duke and Johns Hopkins Universities is now showing that keeping our brains stimulated through lifelong learning and other activities will dramatically help retain mental alertness as we age. More, the brain’s physical anatomy actually responds to these enriching activities and is therefore changed for the better.

No, you won’t suddenly grow a big head, so don’t throw out all of your old hats. What scientists have discovered is that the brain can grow new connections. Think of it this way: all that old wiring inside your head might lose some of its insulation over the years if you do nothing. But by engaging in lifelong learning, you not only preserve that older wiring with better insulation, but you also grow new cells and pathways, thereby enhancing your response times, thought processes, and reflexes. And the electrical upgrade isn’t even expensive! Of all the findings during the congressionally-mandated Decade of the Brain, this startling new discovery appears to be the most important.

Scientists used to think that the number of neurons–those building blocks of nerve cells–were fixed and never changed. New evidence suggests otherwise. The number actually fluctuates throughout our lives, depending on our activity levels. Armed with this knowledge, we no longer have to worry as much about a gradual decrease in our mental acuity. As long as we keep challenging our brain-those “little grey cells” as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot was so fond of saying-it appears they will continue to grow and thrive. And the more complex the task or activity, the more synapses are firing in your brain. This leads to increased circulation in your head. This is incredibly beneficial. Scientists are studying the possibilities that this could help stave off Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases in some people predisposed to those illnesses.

Just like our hearts, our brains need to be nurtured. Lifelong learning is one very important way to ensure that care.

Here are some of the highpoints of recent brain research.

Doctors Fred H. Gage of the Salk Institute in San Diego and Peter S. Eriksson of the Goteborg University Institute of Clinical Neuroscience have collected data that shows that the brain of adult humans-even older adults-regularly regenerate neurons in the hippocampus (the section of the brain responsible for learning).
The research of Doctor Marion Diamond, University of California, Berkeley, with rats shows the positive relationship between an enriched environment (cages with toys and other rats) and brain development in rats. “The enriched rats had a thicker cerebral cortex (responsible for higher nervous functions), than the rats (in impoverished environments).”

Doctor Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist, professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and the Director of the Aging Research and Education Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania says that based on the new knowledge about the brain he recommends that habits of mental stimulation be maintained throughout life.

His vision for learning in later life-which he views as an excellent way to keep older adults fully integrated in society–parallels what this book is all about: that lifelong learning can be used to keep Third Age adults, with their capacity to continue learning, useful to society. Those of us over 50 represent a vast resource for teaching, civic involvement and meaningful service.
Ron Kotulak, author of Inside the Brain: Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works, which is based on his Pulitzer-prize winning series for the Chicago Tribune says “Education has both a biological and behavioral positive effect. Biologically, it works by laying down significantly more connections between brain cells. Behaviorally, it works by providing knowledge that empowers one to articulate needs and overcome potential barriers.”

In a study of more than 1,000 people, ages seventy to eighty, Dr. Marilyn Albert, associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Harvard and director of gerontology research at Massachusetts General Hospital found the higher the education level, the more likely people were to engage in mentally stimulating activities.

Her study also uncovered four main factors that seemed to help older adults maintain their cognitive abilities. They are:

1. Education, which appears to increase the number and strength of connections between brain cells.

2. Strenuous activity, which improves blood flow to the brain.

3. Lung function, which makes sure the blood is adequately oxygenated.

4. The feeling that what you do makes a difference in your life.

At Columbia University, Dr. Yaakov Stern, a clinical neuropsychologist found that people who had less than an eighth-grade education had twice the risk of getting Alzheimer’s as those who went beyond the eighth grade. And when people with low education levels also worked at mentally unstimulating occupations, they had three times the risk of becoming demented.

Charles Gilbert and other researchers at Rockefeller University discovered that the brain can repair itself and construct memory, and in so doing can change thought-patterns and learn new skills. Both repair and memory depend on stimulation or mental activity, something that as a society we have tended to ignore. Dr. Gilbert says, “We need to recognize the importance of challenging our minds as a vital component of health, and of mental health.”

What happens to people’s intellectual abilities as they age was the subject of the Seattle Longitudinal Study started in 1956 by K. Warner Schaie. Dr. Schaie, the director of the Gerontology Center at Pennsylvania State University, studied more than 5,000 people aged twenty to ninety and older. He found that intellectual ability varies widely, but as he said, “There are very few toddling, senile millionaires. It takes education and resources to make and keep that kind of money. Couch potatoes, on the other hand, are the quickest to slip into intellectual limbo. The danger starts when people retire, decide to take things easy and say they don’t have to keep up with the world anymore.”

Dr. Schaie found that in mental testing, bridge players did very well while bingo players did not. Crossword puzzle workers did better on verbal skills, and jigsaw puzzle players tend to maintain their spatial skills. There are many ways to exercise the brain, but you have to do something. “Inactive people tend to show the most decline. The people who are almost too busy to be studied are the ones who do very well.”

In the longitudinal study, seven factors stood out among those whose intellectual abilities were still sharp:

1. A high standard of living marked by above-average education and income

2. A lack of chronic disease

3. Active engagement in reading, travel, cultural events, education, clubs and professional associations

4. A willingness to change

5. Marriage to a smart spouse

6. An ability to quickly grasp new ideas

7. Satisfaction with accomplishments.

Lastly, according to Michael Merzenich, a pioneering neuroscientist at the University of California at San Francisco, science is finally awakening to the fact that the brain reorganizes itself during learning. “It’s something that people don’t realize. They don’t think about the power that they have within themselves to change their brains.”


These studies point out the value of incorporating lifelong learning into our lives. And age is not a barrier. Albert Einstein, Claude Monet, Arturo Toscaninni, Claude Pepper, Hume Cronyn and Pablo Casals, among others were all productive and vibrant well into old age.
Studies aside, these individuals certainly prove that creativity does not end at a certain age. We now know, thanks to the new research, that creativity can grow and thrive, well into our later years.

Lifelong Learning programs are perfect for developing this creativity. Within these programs, old and new talents and skills can be rediscovered or developed, and allowed to shine. The increased self-esteem that results from these activities is priceless. Belonging to a lifelong learning program is a powerful tool in our quest to become that person we were always meant to be.

In the words of Dr. Paul Nussbaum, director of the Aging Research and Education Center in Pittsburgh, PA, “…every time your heart beats, 25% of that blood goes right to the brain. But while exercise is critical, it may be education that is more important. In the 21st century, education and information may become for the brain what exercise is for the heart.”

Lifelong learning is certainly too important to ignore!


Deanna Baxter Eversoll, Ph.D. is Chair of the ASA National "Mind Alert" selection committee for Annual Awards and Training Sites for Brain-based Learning Projects, is an Editorial Board Member for LEARN Newsletter, a Leadership Council Board Member for ASA—LEARN, Project Director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of Nebraska and Past Director of the University of Nebraska SAGE Program for Older Learners.

Q: Scientists have long been studying the brain. How does that research differ today?

I can answer that question in two words—advanced technology.

Because neuroscientists can now actually see the brain at work with thermograph pictures, many of the old assumptions about how the brain functioned have been proven to be FALSE assumptions.

Startling new findings have been discovered as to how the brain ages. The three-and-a-half-pound brain has as many neurons as the Milky Way has stars and as many connections as there are atoms in the world. And, we now know that neuron loss is not significant as the brain ages and the brain is physically capable of rewiring itself throughout life.

Q: How important are these findings to the Baby Boomers?

We are living longer and more of us are living this longer life. The baby boom generation—born between 1946 & 1964—has 10,800 turning 50 each day. Therefore, all ages must understand what this demographic shift means to all of society. Our founding fathers in 1776 had a life expectancy of 35, and in 1998 our life expectancy is averaging 76.

Q: What do you consider the single most important thing people can do to keep their brains healthy?

The new findings clearly show that education is a key factor that correlates with "psychological and physical wellness" in later years. Like the body needs healthy food, so does the brain ——AND this healthy brain food is Education. Education sets the groundwork for an approach to life's problems that stimulates the brain in active ways to enhance both the body and the mind.
What we once thought was inevitable—significant memory loss with age—is not INEVITABLE. A significant portion of our loss is the result of lack of brain exercise through significant problem-solving activities and the lack of interest in continuing to learn and be curious about the world around us.

Q: How can research about the body help the mind?

One great improvement is delaying the frailty of the physical body. It used to be that people got old in their 60's. Today, that’s been delayed for many until their 80's. The mind learned what could be accomplished by eating wisely and exercising regularly and initiated actions to make the body healthier. We certainly never think about not feeding the physical body once it reaches mature size, but instead we look for constant enhancements. We now need to apply this same strategy as we use the new findings about our brains to boost our mental powers and delay frailty of our minds.

Q: How do our social contacts improve our mind?

There is a saying that goes: A friend is someone who reaches for your hand and touches your heart. In reality a friend is someone who reaches for your hand and touches your brain. This is the central headquarters of our thinking and feeling processes and bright energetic thoughtful friends challenge us to make new mental connections and truly learn.

Q: Any recommendations on how to choose our friends?

The best of worlds is to have friends who are diverse in their approaches to life. It is important to realize that friends improve our mental powers when they agree and also when they disagree. When they disagree they force us to consider alternate thoughts and acknowledge their emotional feelings on a topic. On the other hand, when they agree—they let us pursue the "What If's" of the ideas we have in common, and help us enhance already formed concepts.

Q: Does the younger generation benefit the most from this research?

Definitely not! Too many Americans look forward to retirement as a period when they can "tune-out", "turn-off" and lay back and let the world go by. We know that is not a positive psychological state for teenagers, and it is equally destructive for grandparents. Lifelong doses of education are found to be the best prescription for preventing mental capacity decline—even for delaying such destructive diseases as Alzheimer's. This is a challenge for all ages of our society.

Q: What are your recommendations for our readers?

I want to remind them of how powerful their minds really are in determining what they do to shape their futures. We are all Born Learners, but unless we use the potential of what we know to ACT, we have not really learned the lesson. True learning translates into action and we should measure our success by how well we listen, read, write, and actively solve problems.

Q: Any final thoughts?

I want to urge all ages to embrace the new brain research findings with enthusiasm. I also want to challenge them to look to education as a powerful tool for achieving wellness throughout their lifetimes. The positive outcomes will not only benefit them personally, but also in-turn benefit the communities in which they live.

We all know the old saying: "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Let's replace it with one that says: "Use it or loose it - Have you hugged your brain today? "

Excerpted from Learning Later, Living Greater by Nancy Merz Nordstrom and Jon F. Merz. Copyright © 2006 by Nancy Merz Nordstrom, M.Ed., LLC and Jon F. Merz. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission Nancy Merz Nordstrom. $16.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.

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