The Brain

Where did I put my keys?

I put my keys somewhere safe. I know I did.

I was having a new desk delivered and the front door was open for a few minutes. I moved my keys away from the door to keep them safe.

Safe from me, it seemed, as I was still looking for them half an hour later…

The BrainPerhaps you sometimes struggle to remember a name?  Or you recently missed an appointment?  Maybe it takes you a bit longer to solve a puzzle or organise your thoughts?

This happens to all of us. It’s frustrating and often we put it down to our age. After all, we have been taught to expect that our faculties will diminish with time. As we get older, it’s easy to assume that our brains will slow down.

The problem is that we act accordingly and perhaps don’t try so hard as a result.

But what if this wasn’t true? What if decline wasn’t the only option and you knew that your brain could grow at any age? Would it affect your confidence to attempt a new challenge? Perhaps you would have higher expectations of yourself and feel better about your prospects for a healthy and fulfilling life?

Your brain has an amazing capacity to rejuvenate and grow

We’ve been brought up to believe that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’.

We learn that once we lose brain cells, we won’t make any more.

We absorb the message that, as we get older, it’s hard to learn new skills.

Often this leads us to shy away from trying new things, or not having the confidence to take on a challenging project. Through no fault of our own, we end up fulfilling our negative expectations and avoiding the very things that can keep our brains sharp and alert.

You know that phrase ‘move it or lose it’? If we don’t keep moving, our physical abilities deteriorate. Each time you lift a heavy weight or get your heart pumping, it challenges your body. It responds by getting a bit stronger and faster.

Ditto your brain. It’s a bit more ‘use it or lose it’ though. If you don’t stimulate your ‘little grey cells’ they won’t respond. However, if you perform challenging activities, you will find your memory is better and your brain feels sharper.

What we now know about how our brains regenerate – and what this means for you

When we are young, our brains go through an intense period of growth and development. Until recently, it was believed that our brains were hardwired from then on. That we lost brain cells as we got older, but couldn’t grow new ones.

In the last 25 years, neuroscientists have made some important discoveries. These findings relate to two key areas. The first is our ability to grow new brain cells (neurogenesis). The second is the ability of our brains to adapt and respond (neuroplasticity).

Neurogenesis

Your brain is made up of approximately 100 billion nerve cells (also called neurons). The neuron is the basic working unit of the brain. It communicates both with other nerve cells and with cells throughout your body.

Until the late 1990s, we had no evidence that new nerve cells could grow in adult brains. Then, a genuinely ground-breaking study demonstrated that new cells had grown in the brains of 80 and 90-year-olds. We now had proof that the brain can generate new neurons at ANY age.

(It was particularly exciting that these new cells were in the hippocampus, which is crucial to the creation, storage and retrieval of memories. The hippocampus is also one of the first areas of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.)

Neuroplasticity

In addition to the growth of new cells, we have also learnt more about the ability of the brain to change throughout life. This process – called neuroplasticity – continues at any age. Our brains can grow and specialise in response to external factors and stimulation.

What this means is that when you learn a new dance step, a physical change occurs in your brain. New pathways are created to give instructions to our bodies on how to perform the movement. After a while, the new step seems easier and eventually it feels natural. Through practice, you have created a new pathway in your brain to help you perform that activity.

“Acquiring new information is a powerful drug that revives cells, connections and chemical messengers in our brain.”
Professor Ian Robertson, Leading Neuroscientist (aka ‘The Mind Doctor’)

The key takeaway for us is that, in the right environment, your brain can evolve and change in amazing ways. If you ever feel despondent about your memory or pessimistic about your ability to take on a new activity, remember that your brain is never too old to grow and adapt to new challenges and tasks.

In future articles, I will write about the number one action you can take every day to promote the growth of new brain cells, easy steps to creating a stimulating, brain-friendly environment and new research on combatting Alzheimer’s disease.

I would love to know what surprised you most about this article?  Click here to contact me – I look forward to hearing from you!