As we age, our brain function changes much as our physical function does. It’s efficiency slows down.
But there’s something you can do.
Exercise! Exercise activates your brain. This is especially important to know if you want to retain nimble thinking as you age. It seems like a direct contrast to what we know about The role of sleep in learning. But maybe it makes sense within the analogy of exercise where rest and recovery is part of the fitness regime?
Neuroscientists use an acronym: Harold, for hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults. It reflects what happens in brains as we age – a general reorganization and weakening of the brain’s function. This is how our brains adapt to the changes of ageing. They require the use of both sides of the pre-frontal cortex, whereas in younger brains that is localised (to one side).
Essentially it means people require more of their brains’ resources to complete the same tasks that young people do with less cognitive effort. That’s mental tasks that require attention, problem solving, decision-making and other high-level thinking. We know that the pre-frontal cortex is where you “think things through”. We also know that it requires a lot of energy to process that thinking.
Aerobic fitness ~ brain fitness
Research shows that aerobically fit sexagenarians and septuagenarians have fitter brains too ie they have better cognitive function. The work carried out by Hideaki Soya, a professor of exercise and neuroendocrinology at the University of Tsukuba in Japan indicates this for aerobic fitness. More information about the research is available here.
The birth of new neurons
Dr Terrence Sejnowski reminds us of what we have learnt from neuroscience:
“Exercise will also increase the number of new neurons being born.”
~ Dr Terrence Sejnowski, Learning How to Learn – Coursera MOOC
He goes on to say that when he himself goes running, he remembers things. He has taken to running with pen and paper so he can jot down his recollections in case he forgets them by the time he finishes his run. Running is of course, an aerobic fitness activity.
The best thing about this breakthrough is that it can cost you nothing! Aerobic fitness can be achieved by moving. You need no class or special instructor. You can start with walking and progress to power walking or running. You can swim, skip with a rope, ride a bike. You need to sustain it though to get to a level that will increase your aerobic fitness. And – you need to repeat it regularly. So the cost, is your time and effort.
Well – if you already know this, are you actually doing anything about it? Are you getting off the couch and going outside to move? Are you taking the stairs instead of the lift? Are you getting off your train/bus/tram at an earlier stop and walking to your destination? Well – are you? That is the question – and – you aren’t answerable to me.
To achieve an aerobic effect you need to
- regularly perform an aerobic exercise (something that makes you “puff”)
- increase your heart rate to your target heart rate (seek professional advice on your target heart rate, eg 65%-85% of your maximum heart rate (= 220-your age))
- maintain that level for a minimum of 20 consecutive minutes
Are you ready to grow some neurons?