Having recently finished reading Norman Doidge’s book ‘The Brain That Changes Itself‘ I was interested, in particular, to see what he had to say about education, physical activity and aging. Given that the children we teach today are tomorrow’s world leaders, and the senior citizens of the day after that, these facts are relevant to all of us.
He says that as we age the brain reorganizes itself to compensate for the natural loss of effectiveness of some of our neurons. So a function that used to be controlled by one area of the brain becomes controlled by several areas simultaneously. Clearly, some people age ‘better’ than others. Doidge explains why.
“We now know that exercise and mental activity in animals generate and sustain more brain cells, and we have many studies confirming that humans who lead mentally active lives have better brain function. The more education we have, the more socially and physically active we are, and the more we participate in mentally stimulating activities, the less likely we are to get Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Not all activities are equal in this regard. Those that involve genuine concentration – studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading and dancing – are associated with a lower risk for dementia. Dancing, which requires learning new moves, is both physically and mentally challenging and requires much concentration. Less intense activities, such as bowling, babysitting and golfing, are not associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s.”
He explains that well educated people tend to continue with mentally stimulating activities, such as those mentioned above, throughout their lives and it’s these activities that keep the brain, and hence the body, functioning well. Of course, he is not proving causality, but the studies are compelling nonetheless. He cites a particular senior citizen, a medical doctor in his nineties, whose life is exemplary. This gentleman used to be an army surgeon, retired at seventy, got bored in retirement so studied to become a general health practitioner and opened his own practice which he continued until he was eighty. In his new retirement he decided he wanted to see Antarctica so he asked a Russian scientific expedition if he could accompany them. In order to do so he needed to learn Russian, so he did. The story goes on and although this is one person going out of his way not to age the way we all expect to, he is still a great example to us all.
“Physical activity is helpful not only because it creates new neurons but because the mind is based in the brain and the brain needs oxygen. Walking, cycling or cardiovascular exercise strengthens the heart and the blood vessels that supply the brain and helps people who engage in these activities feel mentally sharper – as pointed out by the Roman philosopher Seneca two thousand years ago. Recent research shows that exercise stimulates the production and release of the neuronal growth factor BDNF, which … plays a crucial role in effecting plastic change. In fact, whatever keeps the heart and blood vessels fit invigorates the brain, including a healthy diet. A brutal workout is not necessary – consistent natural movement of the limbs will do. As van Praag and Gage discovered, simply walking at a good pace stimulates the growth of new neurons.
Exercise stimulates your sensory and motor cortices and maintains your brain’s balance system. These functions begin to deteriorate as we age, making us prone to falling and becoming housebound.” (Doidge, pp 254-255)
Doidge is not really giving us any rocket science here, but explaining clearly what’s happening in our brains and bodies and why. Clearly then, it is vital that we get good habits going in children, and educating their parents about the importance of doing so. Now if only we could put old heads on young shoulders and encourage concentration in our children